Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Why Do We Pray? 5 – Communion

Posted: March 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

What if we asked what prayer is rather than trying to focus on what prayer does?

That’s a different sort of question, isn’t it? And perhaps as we understand something more about the essence of Christian prayer, it’s activity will become a little clearer.

So what is prayer?

I would like to suggest that Christian prayer is a mystical connection with God. Now mystical is a word with all sorts of layered meanings in our culture. I use it in the sense of something that has a spiritual meaning that goes beyond our human understanding. In prayer, we step directly into the unmediated presence of God. We are communicating (a word with an intriguing etymology) with God and God with us.

Now, that’s not to imply any particular sort of feeling or experience — which is often what people think when they hear the word mystical. In truth, we may feel nothing. We may not recognize the connection. We may feel our prayers go no higher than the ceiling (which begs the question, of course, of why we feel our prayers need to go anywhere). But if God has an independent, transcendent reality and if prayer is in fact a direct means of interacting with God, then this happens in our prayer whether we feel anything or not.

And that, of course, makes sense of the often repeated instruction to Christians to pray without ceasing. If we were able to open our nous or receptive mind so it is always aware of God, then the mystical connection of prayer would never be broken. Of course, that is easier said than done and in order to move in that direction, we must practice a discipline of prayer — a rule of prayer.

We don’t primarily pray to change God (as if we could), to change ourselves, or to establish a religious community of faith marked by its common practice. No, we pray to grow in communion with God. Now, that process will undeniably change us. And as we grow in communion with God, we will grow in communion with other human beings — which is more than mere fellowship or community. But those are effects of growing in communion with God, of training our nous to be open and directed at God; they are not the purpose of prayer.

In some ways, it is like communication between spouses. Yes, there’s a level at which I talk to my wife and she talks to me just to share information and organize our lives. But on a deeper level, we speak and communicate with each other so that we might grow in communion with each other — so that we might become, in some sense, one. My wife sometimes complains in frustration that she hardly understands me at all, but in truth she knows me better than any other human being. Sometimes she knows me better than I know myself.

Though the metaphor may be strained, prayer is still something very much like that deeper communication between spouses. Of course, God already knows us through and through, but we often do not know God. We do not usually commune with God. Prayer gives us that direct connection to know God as much as we can bear. But to do that, we must pray, and we often do not want to pray at all.

Pray anyway.

As much as you can. As often as you can. To the extent that you can. An attempt to pray, to adhere to a rule of prayer, is better than not praying, even if it seems like God is a million miles away.

Somewhere along the journey, prayer must also involve learning to listen. For the connection of prayer is two-way. If you are connected to God, you have made yourself open to God. If our organ of prayer is our nous, or receptive mind, then we inevitably open our heart to that toward which we direct it.

How will God communicate with you? I can’t say, because I don’t believe there is any rule or constraint. Some hear an almost audible voice. I have at times heard a gentle, inner whisper. Often it may be an understanding.

How do you tell the difference between God’s communication and your own inner voice? That’s a good question and we see frequent examples of situations in which people have almost certainly confused the two. We lie to ourselves so facilely and thoroughly that it’s easy to believe we are communing and hearing from God, when in fact the “god” in question is ourselves.

I have no answer. The only thing I can say is pray and grow in communion with God. If you do, you will learn to know his voice.


Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 19

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 19

50.  If we who have been given the honor of becoming the house of God (cf. Heb. 3:6) by grace through the Spirit must patiently endure suffering for the sake of righteousness (cf. Heb. 10:36) in order to condemn sin, and must readily submit like criminals to insolent death even though we are good, ‘what will be the fate of those who refuse to obey the Gospel of God?’ (1 Pet. 4:17). That is to say, what will be the fate or sentence of those who not only have diligently kept that pleasure-provoked, nature-dominating Adamic form of generation alive and active in their soul and body, will and nature, right up to the end; but who also accept neither God the Father, who summons them through His incarnate Son, nor the Son and Mediator Himself, the ambassador of the Father (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5)? To reconcile us with the Father, at His Father’s wish the Son deliberately gave Himself to death on our behalf so that, just as He consented to be dishonored for our sake by assuming our passions, to an equal degree He might glorify us with the beauty of His own divinity.

This text asks a question that strikes me as particularly appropriate in light of the video on Salvation I posted this past Sunday. This text sets the stage rather than provide an answer, but it asks the right question. It strikes me that question is often wrongly posed as something more like: What do I have to do to get God to accept me? It sets God in opposition to us when that has never been true. We have set ourselves against God, but on his part God has never been against us. Instead he has pursued us unfailingly — assuming our passions in the flesh and ultimately descending with us all the way into death.

The question is not about God. God has done all this is necessary and possible to rescue us and continues through the Spirit to do everything possible to rescue us. But he will not force us to be something we do not will to be. God is the lover of mankind, not its rapist. God cannot act counter to his nature and will not violate the fundamental element of freedom with which he has imbued his creation. That would make both creation and God less than they are.

No, the question now lies on us. In a sense, it always has. Where will we turn our will? What sort of being do we seek to be? Will we seek communion with God or will we continue seek a non-existence we cannot achieve? Will we act to become truly human? Or will we seek instead to become something like an ex-human being?

If you don’t ask the right question, you’re less likely to stumble across the right answer — or recognize it if you do. I think this may be part of the problem with so many strands of modern Christianity. They find many different answers to the wrong questions.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.


An Orthodox Mind?

Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was reading (or actually re-reading, since I’ve written a past series based on it) an article this morning that prompted a variety of thoughts. As a result, I believe this post will be a more meandering one than I usually write as I wander down different corridors in my mind. The article is Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective by Valerie A. Karras. The article has something of an academic flavor to it, but I found it both interesting and easy to read. If you find anything I’ve excerpted from it today interesting, you may want to go read the entire article. The statement that caught my eye this morning and has been bouncing around my head lies in the following from the introduction of the article.

The absence in Eastern Christianity of a soteriology in terms of forensic justification is serious because Orthodoxy believes not only in ecumenism across geographical space, but especially “ecumenism in time”, i.e., the need to be consistent with the theological tradition of the Church from the earliest centuries. Thus, the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.  Sola scriptura means little to the Orthodox, who as opposed to placing Scripture over the Church, have a full sense of Scripture’s crucial but interrelated place within the Church’s continuing life:  the apostolic church communities which produced many of the books of the New Testament, the communities of the catholic Church which over a period of centuries determined which books circulating through various communities truly encapsulated the elements of the apostolic faith; the dogmas and Creed declared by the whole Church in response to the frequent controversies over the nature of the Trinity and of the theanthropos Jesus Christ, controversies which frequently arose precisely from dueling perspectives of which biblical texts were normative and of how those texts should be interpreted.

This of course does not mean that the Orthodox do not believe that each generation of Christians may receive new insights into Scripture, especially insights relevant in a given cultural context.  However, it does mean that the new insights must remain consistent with earlier ones, and that one or two Pauline passages (and one specific interpretation of those passages) are not considered theologically normative – particularly as a foundation for a soteriological dogma – unless the early and continuing tradition of the Church show them consistently to have been viewed as such.

Here is the specific phrase I want to highlight: the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church. I don’t think there’s any sense in which I can be said to have been formed with any sort of traditional Orthodox mind. Nevertheless, this expresses precisely something close to the core of the difficulty I have experienced over the past fifteen years or so as something like an American Protestant (or Evangelical) Christian. I’ve never tried to participate in any sort of religion without digging deeply into it. And I’ve always been very interested in history. In Christianity, those two coincide in ways that go beyond what you find in most religions. At the core of our faith lies a man who lived, taught, died, and was resurrected in a particular place, at a particular time, within the context of a particular clash of cultures. From that flows a community unlike any other ancient community — one that draws from all peoples and acts in love toward all, crossing cultural, ethnic, and class barriers — who says they live and act the way they do because this one man is their source and is actively leading them to act as true human beings. They essentially claim in some sense to be forming the true, renewed humanity from all the nations and that this true humanity is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a startling claim and it had a radical impact across the ancient world.

This connection makes Christianity more deeply and intimately connected to its entire body of historical practice leading back to Jesus of Nazareth and the apostolic witness, to the historical church which carried that witness, than is true of many religions. Since I became Christian, it has always been a problem to me when I could trace the origin of a belief or practice which contradicted previous belief or practice to a specific person or group. For instance, the practice of using unfermented grape juice in communion can easily be traced to the late nineteenth century and completely contradicts the universal prior Christian practice. The belief that communion is merely a memorial and is symbolic (using symbol in a modern sense to mean something that is not real and merely represents that which is real) can be traced to Zwingli in the sixteenth century and contradicts all earlier Christian belief and practice. The practice of “four bare walls and a pulpit” not only contradicts the universal practice of ancient Christianity, it directly contradicts the seventh ecumenical council.

Those are just three simple illustrations, but when I’ve pointed these and others out to my fellow Christians, the dissonance has not usually bothered them at all. And I’ve always had a very difficult time understanding that perspective. A phrase I’ve often heard goes something like this, “Well, I believe the bible says…” That’s always seemed like a very odd thing to say to me. The Holy Scriptures of Christianity are a rich, deep, and complex collection of texts. I could believe they say almost anything I wanted them to say. And I’m more than intelligent enough to find a basis in “the bible” for almost any interpretation I desired to make. So what? If my interpretation has no basis in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic witness, and the belief and practice of the church, then it’s merely another way to construct my own little god, my own religion, and ultimately it can never be any larger than my own limitations. I’ve traveled that road (though in non-Christian contexts) and I’m very familiar with where it ultimately leads. I have no desire to return to that place and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t need to coat it with a Christian veneer.

It is not possible to read or study any single human being and find an expression of the Christian faith that is without any error. We are all human. We are all limited. We all make mistakes at times. (Oddly, it tends to be Protestants — who tend to claim some sort of “soul competency” for believers to separately and individually interpret scripture — who tend to root beliefs and entire belief systems in the interpretations of individual Christians. Think about it. You’ll quickly see what I mean.) However, if the ecumenical witness of the ancient church failed to preserve the apostolic witness — a deeply historical witness, then it’s gone and there’s no way to recover it. If that’s true then we have no idea who God is or how to be Christian. I find no credibility in the restorationist narrative which postulates that the church apostasized in the first century and we have only recently recovered the true Christian faith.

So it seems that while I’ve never been Orthodox, I entered Christianity with a mindset remarkably similar to that of Orthodox Christians. That likely explains why I believed so many things that the Orthodox believed long before I was consciously aware of modern Orthodoxy. I drew from the same sources. (It doesn’t explain why the Jesus Prayer came to me. I had never read any of the works or discussions of the Jesus Prayer beforehand.) Within that context, new insights and understandings are fine. We should build on the work of those who came before us in the faith. And as Christianity interacts with new cultures, new and beautiful facets will be revealed. God cannot be compassed, so there is always something new to say about him. But God is also not inconsistent. So anything new that is revealed must be consistent with Christianity not just across place, but across time or it should be almost automatically suspect.

That’s the main point that was bouncing around my head, but as I re-read the article, it seemed worthwhile to me to highlight some additional thoughts in it.

Thus, Orthodoxy understands human sin primarily not as deliberate and willful opposition to God, but rather as an inability to know ourselves and God clearly.  It is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard his voice in another direction and kept moving away from him, either directly or obliquely.  It is illuminating that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”.  Despite our orientation toward God, we “miss the mark” because, not only does the clouded spiritual vision of our fallen condition make it difficult for us to see God clearly, but we fail to understand even ourselves truly; thus, we constantly do things which make us feel only incompletely and unsatisfactorily good or happy because we don’t recognize that God is himself the fulfillment of our innate desire and natural movement.  Explaining Maximos’ theology, Andrew Louth offers, “… with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfilment.” Ultimately, it is not our natural human will that is deficient, but rather how we perceive it and the way, or mode, by which we express it; as Louth sourly opines, “it is a frustrating and confusing business.”

The image of hearing God in a storm, but not being able to tell the direction is a compelling one to me. We all not only interpret texts and experiences in order to understand them, we are constantly reinterpreting our past experience in the light of our present understanding and position in life. From where I now stand, I can see so much of my first thirty years of life as attempts to follow a voice with almost no sense of the direction from which it came. I was never one who simply didn’t care about the deeper questions of life. I was always pursuing something, following some path, seeking something. Even as a Christian, it’s often been a journey of steps in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. Every human being is created in the image of God and thus has within themselves the capacity to turn their will toward God. But that image is tarnished and cloudy. We see through a glass darkly, as though lost in fog, or from the midst of a sandstorm. It is truly “a frustrating and confusing business.”

The question is whether Luther’s soteriology – and, for that matter, other forms of Western atonement soteriology – are truly based on the christology of the early Fathers, especially those behind the dogmatic formulations of the ecumenical councils.  Both the dogmatic definitions and the supplementary patristic writings surrounding the christological controversies seem to indicate a negative answer to the question.  Far from emphasizing atonement as satisfaction or a forensic notion of justification, these writings express an understanding of human salvation rooted not simply in a particular activity of Jesus Christ, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.  Gregory of Nyssa, writing more than a millennium before the development of the Lutheran doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” in the context of the controversy over the extreme form of Arianism known as Eunomianism, rejects the notion that one could be “totally righteous” in a legal but not existential sense.  Human beings are not restored to communion with God through an act of spiritual prestidigitation where God looks and thinks he sees humanity, but in fact is really seeing his Son. Justification must be as organic and existential as sin is:

I always found the idea that somehow you could be “righteous” in a legal or forensic sense without ever actually being righteous (whatever you might take that to be) a very strange idea indeed. My first concern as I stepped deeper toward Christian faith was to try to understand this Jesus of Nazareth. As I began to understand and then began to know Jesus (though sometimes it felt like I was rediscovering an old and intimate acquaintance), I began to wonder more how to be Christian, how to follow him, how to participate in his life, how to become more truly human. The idea that when God looks at me he somehow sees Jesus instead always struck me not only as a bizarre, but as a deeply undesirable and even repellent idea. I was moving down this Christian path in order to hide or be hidden from God. I wanted to know him and that always meant he had to truly know me. We all want to be known. And it’s a tragedy of our existence that we often are not known, even by those who are closest to us, because we are trapped in fear. Most of that fear lies in the idea that if we are truly know we will be rejected. It seems to me that in this perspective of God, people have simply transferred that fear to God. But the truth of Christianity is that God already knows us. We can’t find him in the storm, but he sees us clearly and fully. And he loves us. He loves us so much that he joined his nature to our fallen nature, the Word became flesh, became sarx, became all that we are, so that we could have true communion with God.

Lucian Turcescu has rightly criticized Orthodoxy for focusing so strongly on theosis that it has tended to ignore the “justification” side of the coin.  However, I disagree with him that, simply because Jewish notions of justification had forensic significance, therefore Paul, or the early church, understood the term in the same legalistic way (in fact, Paul’s point in Romans is precisely to rid Jewish Christians of their forensic understanding of justification rooted in the Levitical law).  Orthodoxy may emphasize theosis (correlated to “sanctification” in the Lutheran model) and see one continuous relational process between the human person and God, but it does not ignore the distinction between justification and sanctification.  Rather, the Eastern Church recognizes two purposes to the incarnation, which may be identified with justification and sanctification:  restoring human nature to its prelapsarian state of “justification” and providing the possibility for true union with God through participation, respectively.  The former purpose was necessitated by the Fall and has been the focus of Western soteriology.  For the East the restoration of human nature to its prelapsarian potential (justification) explains why the Son of God took on humanity’s fallen human nature, i.e., why it was necessary for Christ to die and be resurrected.  Hence, Orthodoxy agrees in affirming the free nature of that restoration through grace (in fact, Orthodoxy proclaims the gratuitous nature of our justification even more strongly than most of Western Christianity since it is given to all humanity, not just the “elect” or those receiving prevenient grace). However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification.  God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins.  His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword.  The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality.  Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected.  Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality.

Jesus did not become human in order to rescue us from our fallen state. He took on our fallen nature — become mortal — and died and was resurrected in order to rescue and restore us. But with or without the fall, he had to become human in order for us to ever have true communion with God. As creatures, that’s something we could never accomplish. God had to come to us — become one with us — before we could be one with him.

And yet, salvation is an ongoing process of existential faith:  as St. Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), which the Joint Declaration cites in paragraph 12.  And so, we do indeed “work out our own salvation”.  Orthodoxy soteriology is synergistic, but not in the perceived Pelagian sense which has resulted in such a pejorative connotation to the word synergy in Protestant thought. We do cooperate, or participate, in our salvation precisely because salvation is relational – it is union with God – and relationships are not a one-way street.  As human beings created in the image of God, we respond freely to God’s love and to his restoration of our fallen human nature.  As Kallistos Ware asserts, “As a Trinity of love, God desired to share his life with created persons made in his image, who would be capable of responding to him freely and willingly in a relationship of love.  Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.”

Many of the views or perspectives of God that permeate Christianity today do not actually perceive God as a Trinity of love, even if they use the words. “Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.” That really says it all. The amazing thing in creation is that God somehow made space for that freedom. He is its sovereign Lord and sustains all of it from moment to moment. But he is love and thus begrudges none of creation its existence. (That’s why annihilationism is ultimately wrong.) And yet, even as God permeates and sustains everything, even our own bodies, he has made space for an element of uncertainty in the very fabric of creation. We have the ability to love or not to love. And the ripples of the impact of that choice echo through creation far beyond our immediate sphere of experience. When we love, we participate in the healing and renewal of creation. When we do not, we participate in the disordering and destruction of creation.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 10 – Theosis or Deification

Posted: July 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

If our basic problem is that we don’t want God and are not able to live within him and in union with him, what’s the solution? This question points to the deeper meaning and accomplishment of the work of the mystery of the Incarnation. It’s why Christians traditionally believed and taught that Christ would have become one of us even if mankind had not “fallen.” He would not have had to die in that instance, but without the Incarnation we have no means for true union with God.

As I’ve discussed on posts regarding what it means that God is holy, he is the wholly other uncreated one. We are mere creatures and have no capacity on our own for communion with God. In the Incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth joined the divine nature with our human nature. By assuming our nature, he not only defeated death and provided the means for our healing, he bridged that divide. As St. Athanasius wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.

God has accomplished all that is needed for our union with him, which is our true salvation. It’s a done work. The potential for that union through Christ lies within every single human being. Truly, everything God planned to do was accomplished or finished by Christ. The question before us is not what God wants or desires or has done. Rather, the question we must answer is a much more difficult one. Do we want God?

That’s not an idle question. Answering it is a matter of a life lived. I know in my own life there are times when I have grown, at least a little, in communion in God. And there are times when I have not wanted God at all. God is constant. We are inconstant. But if we will turn what little of our will we can toward God, he is there with all the grace (which is to say himself) that we need to move toward union with him. Baby steps are often all we can manage. The question is less about how much or how little we are able to do and more about whether or not we choose to become the sort of person who wants God.

Salvation, then, is becoming one with the three Persons of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. We maintain our distinctive personhood even in perfect union. Hell is what we do to ourselves and to others when we don’t want God and when we hate our fellow human being. There is no standing still in this process. We are either moving toward union with God and embracing life or we are seeking a non-existence we are helpless to achieve as we turn from God.

Do I want God? It’s a haunting question. I believe that much of the time I want to want God. At least I now know that this particular God who was made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth loves and wants me. For much of my life, I did not recognize and understand that truth. I find he is a God worth wanting.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


Original Sin 15 – What is the Gospel?

Posted: March 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

I have been struggling over how I would write this part of the series since I started it. I know what I want to say, but I’ve discovered over the years that this is a place where the fact that I was not culturally shaped within the context of American Christianity creates a disconnect that is difficult to bridge. I don’t really grasp the inner experience and automatic assumptions of those who were shaped within that context and so it is often like navigating a minefield. I tend to express myself in ways that produce reactions I did not intend. I’ve never been known for a reluctance to “stir the pot” in any situation if that’s what I feel is necessary. However, I don’t have the sense that anything I want to say on this topic should be controversial for any Christian. It’s not only deeply embedded in the Scriptures, but consistently in the interpretation of those Scriptures throughout the first centuries of the Church. So I ask that if you react negatively to something I write in this post, take  a moment to explain your reaction to me and I’ll see if I can find better words.

I’ve been writing this series from the perspective of my own personal journey into and with Christian faith, so I’ll continue in that vein. It seems to me that most American Christians today don’t realize that in order to proclaim their story of “good news“, they must first either make a person feel bad about themselves or convince them that there is a powerful deity out there who will torment them forever if they don’t do as he requires. When you boil them down, most of the common “gospels” require you to first induce fear, guilt, or shame in the hearer before the rest of the proclamation (which is basically deliverance from the very shame, guilt, or fear you’ve worked so hard to instill) makes any sense at all.

Stop here and think for a minute about how you would explain to someone why they should consider being Christian. Am I wrong? Now, if someone is already consumed to some degree by shame, guilt, or fear, then it’s an easy sell, I suppose. But if a person is not, then unless you can manipulate them into feeling guilty or fearful about their status before this deity, most modern “gospel” proclamations have nothing to offer. And it seems to me that as soon as we fall into manipulation, we are acting in ways that God does not act. If I am trying to manipulate you, then I am treating you not like a person, but like an object instead. I cannot love you and use you at the same time. If that’s not “sin“, I don’t know what is.

I did not come into Christianity because I feared what this deity might do to me. I was living within non-Christian frameworks and was largely content with them. There was no ground in which fear of this Christian God could take root. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the Lord, but you have to be Christian or shaped by a Christian culture before you begin to understand the deep truth of that statement. And by then you should understand that it is fearful due to the all-consuming fire of his love.

Similarly, I did not become Christian because I felt guilt or shame before the Christian God for my “sin“. Oh, I had and have guilt and even shame, but largely for the way things I’ve done have hurt other people or for failing to be the person I desired to be. (Some of it also probably flows from childhood experiences, but that’s a different topic altogether.) I had no sense of guilt toward the Christian God. In fact, I would still say that I am just discovering what sin actually means in a Christian context and how deeply that thread is interwoven in my life. Sin is also something that can truly be understood only from within a Christian framework.

If those aren’t the “gospel”, what then is the “good news” of Christianity? And why is it good news?

Christianity proclaims a good God who loves mankind. Christianity tells the story of a God who is about the business of rescuing mankind and all creation. The Christian God is not some distant, transcendent deity. No, the Christian God is the one who comes near, the one who enters his creation as a part of it, who empties himself. And by doing so, the Christian God is the one who destroys death and heals mankind’s nature, making communion with God possible for us all.

Here’s a question for you. If mankind had never sinned, if we had remained faithful, would the Son of God still have become Incarnate? The ancient Christian answer to that question is yes. Jesus would not have had to die if that were the case. It was through the Cross that he was able to destroy death in the Resurrection. But it was always God’s purpose (see Ephesians) for mankind to be joined in full communion with God. And that was only ever possible through the action of God. We could never have joined ourselves to God unless he first joined his nature to ours.

When I think about the Gospel, I like a phrase of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s. “Jesus did not come to make bad men good. He came to make dead men live.” I think that captures a significant and central part of it.

I realize that this post is getting long and I’ve still not reached the point that I originally intended to make. So I’ll wrap this up here and continue the discussion tomorrow.


Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Posted: March 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 14 – The Two Natures of Christ

Whether through the hands of another human being, in the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures, or through some sense of direct connection, it has always been Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, who draws me toward Christianity and who keeps me circling in a whirlpool of love with Jesus at its center. But I wasn’t interested in knowing just any Jesus of my imagination (or the imagination of others). I wasn’t interested in buddy Jesus. I’ve always been repelled by white, suburban, American, Republican Jesus. No, I wanted to understand (to the extent possible), learn to worship, and grow in communion with the actual man.

On the one hand this Jesus was a specific historical human being, a seemingly failed revolutionary gruesomely executed by one of the empires most gifted at instilling fear. The Christian scriptures themselves tell us that Jesus was tempted in every way we are tempted, he endured everything that we endure, he is truly one of us. When we turn toward Jesus, we do not find some supernatural, divine avatar who is something other than human. We find a human being in the fullest sense of the word.

And yet … he did not sin.

Sin is a word that is full of modern, often awful, connotations, but the way I have come to understand it is that Jesus did not miss the mark. He remained faithful where we all have been faithless. He lived and died as the true man, the Son of Man, the sum total of all that humanity was meant to be.

And here is where Christianity takes an amazing turn. Death could not contain Jesus. Death thought it had swallowed a man and found it had swallowed God instead. For the one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was both man and eternal Logos — the Word or Act of God. Everything that could be said of the Father or had ever been said of the Father, could also be said of the Son. Somehow the one who created all things and in whom everything subsists became a part of his creation.

And all humanity is healed in that union. We are no longer in bondage to death. It is no longer the nature of man to die. Moreover, since our nature has been joined to God’s in Christ, we can move out of our bondage to death and sin and into communion with God. We are able to participate in the divine energies of God.

This discussion may not seem directly related to the topic of original sin as inherited guilt. But it seems to me that many people today often have a somewhat truncated vision of Christ. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but if what I’ve described in this post does not lie somewhere near the center of what you consider to be salvation, then you may have only just begun to wrap your head around the immense implications of the Incarnation. I feel this post lays necessary groundwork for the next thing I want to discuss in this series.