Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.

Peace.


Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.


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.


Speaking of God – Trinity

Posted: April 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – Trinity

In Speaking Carefully About God and continuing in How to Speak of God I explored some of the things I try to keep in mind about God whenever I speak or write. In this final post, I want to explore what it means that the uniquely Christian God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. We cannot speak of the God made fully known in Jesus of Nazareth except in a fully Trinitarian manner.

But what does it mean to speak in a Trinitarian manner? How does one do that? There are many directions the answer to those questions could take. It’s a deep subject and there’s no way I can do more than address a very few aspects of the answer in this post. So this is not a comprehensive treatise, just a few things I try to keep in mind when I think of God.

First, there are three distinct Persons in the Trinity. That’s critically important. It’s not God presenting different faces to creation in different situations, but three Persons acting in concert. However, it’s three Persons so unified in love and will and action that they can said to be of one essence — one God. And that is the mystery. It’s out of the overflow from that deep and utterly self-sufficient uncreated communion of love that all creation subsists.

But that reality constrains our language. One way I have heard it presented that makes a great deal of sense to me goes something like this. Absolutely everything we can possibly say about God applies either to all three persons of the Trinity or uniquely to one — never to two and not the other. So the Father is uniquely Father. The Father is the font or source. The Son is the only begotten of the Father (begotten not made). The Son is the unique logos of God, the Debar Yahweh, the Word and strong right arm of God. The Holy Spirit, the  Ruach Yahweh, the breath or wind of God proceeds eternally from the Father. Those are some of the things we can say uniquely about each Person. These are some of the things that make them unique Persons.

But almost everything else we can possibly say about God applies to all three Persons. We say that God is love. By that we mean the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Spirit is love. And there is no break, division, or separation in their love. They are all the same love. One way to think of it is that the Father always acts in and through his Word and Spirit. And his Word and his Spirit never act apart from the Father and each other. Perfect union. Perfect harmony.

And this brings up a common problem today. In an attempt to find gender neutral references to the Persons of the Trinity, some people today try instead to reference the Persons by different activities of God. A commenter on Sarah Moon’s post, Our Mother who art in heaven, mentions referring to the Persons of the Godhead as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are other “activities as names” I’ve heard over the years, but the ones above are a good illustration and every such attempt shares the same flaw.

When we name the Persons of the Trinity by an activity of God, we necessarily ascribe that activity to that one Person and not to all three. The above implies that it’s the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who sustains. A hermeneutical move like that effectively reduces the Trinity to three separate Gods (as some of the Christian critics have long asserted) acting independently from each other. And it also fails to accurately describe the God revealed to us.

The Father is not the Creator. No, it’s better to say that creation flows from the Father spoken by his Word and nurtured by his Spirit. We see that pretty clearly even in Genesis, but explicitly in places like the prologue to John and Colossians.

The Son is not separately the Redeemer. Rather the Son acts together with the Father and the Spirit as the agent of redemption — as one would expect of the Word or Arm of God. But it’s the Son acting in concert with the Father empowered by the Spirit redeeming creation. We could as easily say the Spirit redeems or the Father redeems.

Similarly, the Spirit alone is never the Sustainer. Colossians tells us that all creation subsists or is sustained each moment by the Son. Jesus tells us he is with us always, even to the end of the ages. The Father, as the font of life, also sustains all that is.

Virtually every action of God is an action of the Trinity, not of a single Person of the Trinity. It’s in that sense we have one God. So if we want to speak about the activity of God and we do not see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in that activity, we should be exceedingly cautious indeed.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 18

Posted: February 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

46.  God, full beyond all fullness, brought creatures into being not because He had need of anything, but so that they might participate in Him in proportion to their capacity and that He Himself might rejoice in His works (Ps. 104:31), through seeing them joyful and ever filled to overflowing with His inexhaustible gifts.

The Christian God has always existed as a perfect communion of love between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The image of dance has sometimes been used in an effort to convey the image with each eternally yielding to the other two in such perfect union that the language of a single essence or being must be used, yet each remaining a distinct person.

Obviously our language and our imagination fail at the task of describing that which transcends us, but a key point is that God did not create because God lacked anything. Rather creation is the overflow of that dance of love. We were created to be loved and to participate to the extent we are able in that dance of love.


Love of enemies and random thoughts after a Derek Webb house concert

Posted: December 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Love of enemies and random thoughts after a Derek Webb house concert

I went with a friend (his CD is pretty good too — shameless friend plug) to a Derek Webb house concert tonight. Unlike many people who attend his concerts (from what I gather), I’m a latecomer to Christianity and never knew anything about Caedmon’s Call, whom I gather were popular in the CCM context. Instead I was introduced to Derek Webb by the aforementioned friend with his Mockingbird album. David Ramirez opened with a few songs and I was blown away by some of them. I’m looking forward to listening to the CD I bought. I loved the atmosphere of a house show. It’s much different than even a small venue staged show.

But this post isn’t exactly about the concert. In all places and all times, I have thoughts and ideas for something I could write (not necessarily a blog post) flit through my head. Many of them soon vanish. Some stick and keep bouncing around, at least for a while. I had a few such thoughts during the show. I won’t flesh them into full blog posts, but I decided I wanted to write briefly about at least one or two.

At one point Derek mentioned how instinctual it is, even from a very young age, to want to hit someone back  when they hit you. It’s in our blood, I believe is the way he put it. And Jesus’ command to love our enemies often makes no sense at all to us. I realized that’s the perfect description of the impact of what the Orthodox call ancestral sin. Because that instinctive desire to retaliate is tied to our need to protect our person and our identity, and ultimately that is tied to our mortality and our innate fear of that mortality. That permeates everything we think and do for as much of our lives as we can remember. It saturates our relationships and the whole world around us. We act as we do because we are enslaved by death.

Think about it. If I am not enslaved by my mortality, I have no innate or instinctual drive to strike back to protect myself. But it goes much deeper than that. We do not live in the perfect love and communion of the Trinity because of our fear of death. We encounter someone in need. Why don’t we meet that need? We ask, what will happen to me or to my family, if I meet that need? We cannot love the other because we are trapped, even if we believe we are free. That’s why the early church held all things in common and all gave freely so that none lacked. That’s a description of the sort of communion we understand the Trinity to have with each other. The Resurrected Christ had broken the gates of Hades/Sheol. He had crushed death. And their freedom was freedom from the slavery of death. They could freely give their resources to meet all needs because perfect love had driven out fear.

I also realized I so quickly connected to the patristic (and Orthodox) teachings on the passions because it truly is a part of my formation. I grew up with people around me ruled by things over which they had little or no control. Many of those people loved me and many of them never intentionally did anything to harm me. In fact, most of the time they loved me and acted accordingly. The problem is that when you are ruled by something, you simply cannot always place others first, even those you dearly love and to whom you wish to express the care flowing from that love. That which rules you, your passion, at times does so to the exclusion of everything else. It’s not that they don’t love. It’s that sometimes that which rules them blocks the effective expression of that love. And that can manifest in all sorts of ways.

So I’ve always understood ‘passions’ and their implications. It’s almost written in my DNA. A passion is something we suffer because it doesn’t just harm others. It hurts those it rules. Those subject to a passion cannot always do as they wish to do. Sometimes they do as they do not wish to do, and suffer as a result.

Christ offers freedom, and by freedom he means freedom from our universal bondage to death as well as freedom from the ruling passions we suffer. But it’s a freedom we must seek to the extent that we are able. If we fail to do so, even though mankind and creation have been freed by Christ, we will continue to live as slaves to the cruelest masters of all.


The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

Posted: February 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica discusses another term, hesychia, anyone who explores Orthodoxy or the Jesus Prayer will encounter. It’s an important concept to understand.

In biblical Greek this word means “silence,” “quiet,” “stillness,” or “rest.” It is not an empty silence, but one marked by respect and awe. I think of Job, who said, when confronted by God’s majesty and power, “I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).

St. Gregory of Palamas wrote that in that stillness, we can directly encounter God and we can perceive reality as it is — suffused with God. The Transfiguration of Christ illustrates this truth. Although we call it a “transfiguration,” Christian understanding has always been that what the disciples saw was the reality of Christ. Jesus never broke communion with the Father and the Spirit, so he lived constantly in their presence and light. Most of the time nobody could see that reality. The light of God is not part of creation. Whatever it might be, it’s not photons. And we are told in multiple places that those energies of God suffuse and sustain all that is. Most of the time, we do not have eyes to see.

To the limited extent I understand it, hesychasm seeks to quiet the nous so that we can experience God in our innermost being. When we do, through God’s grace, it can be possible to acquire the Spirit in such a way that we do have eyes to see the reality of creation.

I’ve never experienced that myself. I feel it’s important to stress again that there’s nothing special about me and I’m still not very good at all at the practice of any aspect of Christian faith. But I do believe it’s true. This marks the key difference I found between Hinduism and Christianity very early on. Both teach and speak of a God in whom we live and move and have our being, but Brahman and Christ are not the same. Ultimately, Brahman is other and unknowable, while Christ, even as he transcends our knowledge, makes himself immediately and personally known.


The Problem of Evil?

Posted: February 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I definitely recommend the lectures series on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mysticism: The Transformation of the Senses given by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg. The lectures are excellent, but I actually found the manner in which he handled the Q&A sessions following each one and some of the answers he gave on the spot in response to questions even more impressive.

As I was listening to the lectures a second time, something in the third lecture that I had overlooked the first time through caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think it captures much of my instinctive response to the particular shape the discussion of “The Problem of Evil” often takes today, but which I could never quite find words to properly express.

Father Irenei, in the part of the lecture in which he is discussing the limits of what we can say and know, makes the point that it’s a misnomer to describe evil as a problem. A problem has a solution. We may not know or have discovered the solution, but it’s reasonable to believe that a solution exists. He uses the illustration of a complex math problem. It might be hard. It might be beyond our present ability to solve. But it’s reasonable to believe it can be solved. By calling evil a problem, we imply there is a solution — that the gordian knot can be undone.

But evil isn’t like that. It’s truly a mystery that in some ways transcends our understanding. We don’t ultimately solve the question of evil. We never fully understand it in all its ramifications. We are invited instead to trust the God who also transcends our understanding — the God who has made himself immediately and personally accessible to us all by assuming our own nature. We are invited into a communion of love beyond our understanding. We are told that God has overcome evil and defeated death on our behalf. We can place our confidence in that particular God or not, but either way, we still can’t solve or resolve the problem of evil.

Evil is a mystery. We can see its impact, its effects. We sometimes know when it’s at work around us. But it’s often beyond our understanding.

None of which means we should give up or succumb to evil. We are to fight it in our lives. And we are to offer pastoral care to all those suffering evil. God gives us the grace, the power, to do both if we choose to avail ourselves of him. But those actions form a way of life, not an intellectual understanding of evil nor are our efforts necessarily effective at reducing evil on some large scale. We are to offer our efforts nonetheless. That act in creation is part of our reasonable worship. It’s part of our eucharistic function as priests in creation.

But we need to resist evil, not solve it. If we focus on the latter, I think we make ourselves vulnerable.