The Jesus Prayer 7 – Seriousness of Disciplines

Posted: March 4th, 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 points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.

This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.

It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.

I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the  best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.

With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.

Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.

The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.

I accept it humbly as a gift of God.

I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.

So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.

Peace.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 14

Posted: February 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 14

40.  The Lord is wise, just and mighty by nature. Because He is wise, He could not be ignorant of the way in which to heal human nature. Because He is just, He could not save man, whose will was in the grip of sin, in a tyrannical fashion. Because He is almighty, He could not prove unequal to the task of completing His healing mission.

The above, of course, succinctly dismantles the core foundation of Calvinism. God knew how to heal human nature, which is common to all humanity. At the same time he is just (and his justice is love and mercy), by which St. Maximos means he could not force ‘salvation‘ on anyone. Calvinism, by contrast, holds that God unilaterally saves some and damns others and their individual wills are ultimately overwhelmed by the divine will. In some ways it’s Nestorianism or monothelitism applied to salvation instead of the nature of Christ. The last sentence reveals the Cross itself as the glory of Christ. That was the supreme task that revealed him as God. The Cross becomes the tree which heals the tree.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

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

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Thirsting for God 1 – Matthew Gallatin

Posted: November 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 1 – Matthew Gallatin

I plan to spend several posts reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. Before I began working through the book itself, I wanted to write a bit about the author and the reasons I decided to read his book. I encountered Matthew Gallatin through his Ancient Faith Radio podcast, Pilgrims for Paradise. I’ve listened to his podcast from the start and I’ve listened to many of them more than once. I did not, however, immediately buy his book. I recognized that it was primarily aimed at a different sort of audience than me.

Thirsting for God captures Matthew Gallatin’s personal journey through different Christian traditions and eventually into Orthodoxy, however it is framed as something of an apologetic for Orthodoxy aimed at Protestants, and the particular objections that most modern Protestants would raise. While I ended up Protestant, that’s mostly accidental rather than deliberate and I’ve never really embraced everything it means to be Protestant. I’ve sometimes jokingly referred to myself as the Accidental Christian and Reluctant Baptist (or vice versa).

The fundamental story of Protestantism (and this is true across all the tens of thousands of strands) is that at some point in its history the Church wandered from its true course as established by the apostles and lost its way. Each of the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations and non-denominations thus believe they are living and acting as the Church ought. Now, that particular description is most often used for those strands that are labeled Restorationist. However, the Restorationists simply push the time of apostasy all the way back to at or near the first century. They are the most extreme. However, every Protestant strand has begun because somebody at some point said the Church is off-track. Here’s how it “ought” to be done.

I never found that story compelling. Yes, the Church is composed of broken and sinful people, but it is not merely those people or we have nothing to say to the world around us. Moreover, if you really look at the historical settings and claims most of them aren’t very credible. Even the ones that arose in response to some real problems, like Luther, didn’t actually reconnect to anything historical in the Church. In a number of fundamental ways, he essentially reinvented a Christianity that did not exist before him. In fact, the origin of just about every distinctly Protestant belief can be traced to a particular person at a particular time over the last five hundred years or so. And I have too much of a historical bent not to notice that fact.

Matthew Gallatin became aware of Christ’s presence from a young age as a dirt-poor Appalachian farm boy. As he grew older, he began a love affair with theology and at the age of thirteen he and his parents became convinced that Seventh-Day Adventism held the truth of Christian doctrine and practice. He eventually went to an Adventist college where in depth study began to deconstruct his belief in Adventism. His turning point, in some ways like that of Frederica Mathewes-Green, came from a voice welling up inside him. Frederica Mathewes-Green was told that Jesus was her life and that those other things — they were not her life. (I can strongly empathize with her story.) Matthew Gallatin’s question was different. Do you know what you believe? Is what you believe the truth? I can empathize with that as well.

His first move over the course of five years was from Seventh-Day Adventism to Protestant “fundamentalism” and their commitment to the Bible “as it reads.” But, as we know, those strands of Protestantism are filled with their own divisions and thousands of different “simple” readings of the Bible. And in the midst of that he wondered where to find love, a question which led him to the charismatics — among whom he eventually became a pastor. Matthew has an interesting line at this point I want to share. “Sometimes I think I might still be a charismatic, were it not for the fact that I was also a pastor.”

It was at that point that the journey that would eventually end up in Orthodoxy began.


Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Atonement | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I’ve worked through my thoughts on this blog across a variety of topics from original sin to justification to hell in separate multiple post series on this blog. I have not written such a series on the fairly common Protestant teaching of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA from this point on) because I don’t have anything to work through on the topic and I don’t really have much to say about it. However, this teaching seems to surface in many of the discussions I follow and I’ve become increasingly convinced that I should try to write something on the topic for those who from time to time browse my blog. I don’t really expect there to be more than this one post on this subject unless others raise questions that seem to me to warrant another post.

I will say up front that I’m pretty familiar with this teaching. I’ve read many of the primary sources. I’m familiar with the common prooftexts. I’ve listened to it expounded and taught countless times in countless ways over the years. I understand many of the different ways it is nuanced — both in theory and in practice. But I do think the essence of this teaching is pretty simply stated. In fact, the following statement I recently saw in Sunday School distills it pretty accurately, if not to any great depth.

Jesus died on the Cross to pay God the Father the debt of our sin.

I beg to differ.

St. Gregory the Theologian provides the best summary I’ve found of my reaction to that idea.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

I don’t have much to add to what St. Gregory says. As far as I’m concerned, PSA teaches a different God and a different faith than the one I believe. It’s as different to my eyes as the faith taught and the God described by the docetists and the arians.

The problems with PSA are legion. It teaches that God has a problem with forgiveness. Even as he commands us to forgive, he is unable to forgive himself. Rather the infinite debt must be paid in full by someone and since we are finite beings, the debt can only be paid by the divine Son. But PSA fundamentally denies God mercy and forgiveness. Instead, God becomes the unrelenting debt holder. In the mechanics of paying that debt PSA violates everything Christianity says about the nature of the Trinity. It has members of the Trinity acting almost in opposition to each other rather than in concert as one. The Son is paying the debt the Father can’t forgive. The Father is exhausting his divine wrath on the Son. The Spirit almost vanishes from the picture. And even with the debt paid, we are not actually healed and we do not truly commune with God. Instead, we move into a sort of legal fiction. When God looks at us, he doesn’t actually see us. He sees his Son. The list of problems goes on ad nauseum.

Now, that is not to say that the Spirit has not been at work in the groups of Christians who hold some variation of this belief. I would not deny the work of the Spirit anywhere in humanity. And the Spirit certainly has more tools with which to work among those who proclaim that Jesus — the image of the invisible God — is Lord, however distorted their vision of him might be, than among adherents of entirely different world religions.

However, it is also true that there are many people who correctly understand the sort of God postulated by PSA and have rejected that God in revulsion. I empathize with them. If I thought the God described by the PSA theory was really the Christian God, I would absolutely reject Christianity myself. No, our God is the good God who loves mankind. He is the God who has never had a problem forgiving us. He has not required satisfaction. He has not had to have his wrath assuaged by pouring it onto the Son. All three persons of the Trinity were always acting in concert to save us, even in the worst moments on the Cross. Yes, the Cross is indeed the instrument of our salvation, but we never needed to be saved from God. Instead we were rescued by the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in and through the Cross by the power of the Resurrection. We were ransomed from sin and death, the powers which enslaved us — not from our good God and not ultimately from the Evil One (though he certainly used the power of sin and death against us).

And, as Forrest Gump says, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

I’ve posted it before, but I’ll post again this podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the Cross. It says much of what I would say better than I could say it.

Understanding the Cross

I would also recommend the much shorter reflection (5 minutes) by Fr. Stephen Freeman.

The Tree Heals the Tree


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

Posted: September 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 5

9.  The wrath of God is the painful sensation we experience when we are being trained by Him. Through this painful  experience of unsought sufferings God often abases and humbles an intellect conceited about its knowledge and virtue; for such sufferings make it conscious of itself and its own weakness. When the intellect perceives its own weakness it rejects the vain pretensions of the heart.

The most important point I want to stress is that whatever we call the wrath of God is always an expression of his love. Our God is love and a love so sublime and unutterably wonderful that the divine Son — the Logos — the one through whom everything that is was made and in whom all is sustained, became fully and truly one of us. This is the God who is not willing that any should perish. This is the God who is life.

It’s true that the first two councils that we now recognize as ecumenical were primarily defending against attack on the full divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But that has been more the exception than the rule. From the late first century and second century docetists and gnostics to the heresies that were the subject of the other five ecumenical councils, it’s usually been the humanity of Jesus that has been attacked. I sense the same sort of spirit today in a lot of evangelicalism. It often seems that the Incarnation is reduced to little more than a form upon which the Father can vent his wrath. Everything centers on the Cross. The Incarnation is an almost pro forma precursor and the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought.

The Cross is, of course, the instrument of our salvation, but it only has meaning in the full context of the wonder of the Incarnation and in the light of the Resurrection. But if Jesus was not fully human in every way, if he did not become fully and truly one of us in order to heal us, and if he did not defeat death — destroy Hades as it is poetically stated — in the Resurrection, then our nature is not healed or capable of being healed and we are not saved. That which is not assumed is not healed.

So every time we consider wrath, we have to consider it in that context. We have tendency to confuse giving someone what they desire (or getting what we desire) with love. But the two are not the same at all. As Dallas Willard puts it, if we love someone it means we actively will their good. And what they desire — what we desire — is often not that which is for our good. Often our will is in the grip of those things we suffer — our passions. A heroin addict is ruled by their addiction. They might desire heroin with all their being. But would any of us consider it loving to give them what they desire?

Of course, even if we truly and actively will the good of one we love, we often have a very hard time discerning what would truly be for their good. Even if our efforts are not thwarted or twisted by our own passions, we often make mistakes. We will good, but we end up causing at least some harm. “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” I know I have often done ill where I meant nothing but good.

God does not suffer from either of those limitations. He unfailingly wills our good. And he always knows what is for our good. His is love and all his acts are love — even if they feel like wrath. Thus, as I discussed in my series on Hell, the wrath and fire experienced by some is not actually anything different than the warmth and comfort others experience. Rather, that particular wrath is the experience of the fire of the unveiled love of God by those who do not want it.

Similarly, as St. Maximos points out in this text, the wrath we sometimes experience now is also God’s love. We experience it as wrath because we are not getting what we want. But if we are not getting what we desire, we need to recognize that’s probably because what we desire is actually our destruction. Sometimes (actually pretty often, I think) God is like a loving parent who allows us to experience the pain of our own choices so that we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Sometimes he does not mitigate the cross of undeserved suffering — but whatever it is, he has been there too and experienced it as well. Sometimes he does act to protect or heal. In neither case is it random or arbitrary.

The Christian recognizes that God is always acting from love and from his unwillingness that any of us should perish. We often cannot see the reasons. That’s especially true in the middle of suffering. Sometimes, perhaps years later, we can see the hand of God in hindsight. Sometimes we can’t. But if Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be — the fully divine Son who becomes fully human in every way — then this is the God we worship.


Understanding the Cross of Christ

Posted: April 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Understanding the Cross of Christ

On this Holy Saturday, I would like to recommend that you pause for a brief period and listen to this lecture by Fr. Thomas Hopko, Understanding the Cross of Christ. Fr. Hopko is semi-retired now, but he served for years as the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I’ve enjoyed listening to him for several years now. I’ve thought a number of times about writing on the topic of the Cross. Fr. Hopko makes many of the same points I would make. He even quotes some of the sources I would use. But I think he makes those points better than I could ever make them. If you’ve had a typical American exposure to Christianity, it might be that you’ve never heard some of the things he says. Today would be a good day to hear them.