Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 6

Posted: August 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 6

13.  Whether or not a nature endowed with intelligence and intellect is to exist eternally depends on the will of the Creator whose every creation is good; but whether such a nature is good or bad depends on its own will.

First, we are contingent beings. We have no natural immortality. Thus our existence is not part of our nature in the sense that it is something we control. When Christ broke the chains of death he did so for all humanity. However, our acts for good or ill do depend on our will. In that sense we form part of our nature.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 4 – Theodicy

Posted: July 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Theodicy is a term generally used to describe the problem of reconciling a powerful and benevolent God with the suffering and pain in the world. It’s generally presented as an argument for atheism, so it may seem odd that I’m describing it as one of the reasons I’m not an atheist. Hopefully I can unravel that apparent conundrum.

I do want to be clear. Christianity does assert a single creator God on whom all that exists is contingent from moment to moment. Our God is one who is both immanent (everywhere present and filling all things) and transcendent. Christianity teaches that this God who is fully revealed in Christ is a good God who loves mankind. Moreover, this God is such that the only word, inadequate as it is, that we can use to capture his essence and being is love.

So it is true that the problem of evil is a very real one for Christianity. While I don’t intend to explore that problem in this post, I have discussed some of my thoughts in various places in the past. However I do acknowledge this is truly a deep philosophical problem — for Christianity. But atheism presents itself as the rejection of all Gods and any concept of deity, not merely a rejection of the Christian God. As such, I always wondered why its arguments, such as this one, seem to often be so narrowly focused.

I’ll illustrate by drawing on my pre-Christian Hindu perspective. Suffering is acknowledged, of course, but it cannot be described as a problem for Hinduism. Now, it’s been a long time since I actively thought from a somewhat Hindu perspective and I was never a particularly devoted practitioner by any stretch of the imagination. But that lens did generally shape how I perceived the world around me for much of my first three decades of life. And I did meditate, read the Bhagavad Gita (sporadically, at least) and other texts, and commentaries on them. I searched online and found one of the texts that still sticks in my mind from chapter 18. (Always keep in mind that it’s not easy to translate these texts into English. Concepts don’t necessarily match well at all.)

Within the hearts of all living entities, resides the Supreme Lord, O Arjuna and by the potency of the illusory energy orchestrates the movements of all living entities like figurines on a carousel.

This page actually includes four commentaries or different perspectives with Hinduism on that passage. The one by Sridhara Swami captures what would have been my understanding. It’s maya (often translated illusion, but flowing from the idea of “not that“) that binds us to samsara, the wheel of suffering within which we are locked by the cycle of death and rebirth. Through transcendence, we can stop revolving from one life to another. (Reincarnation and our attachment to the illusion of the material is actually more a core part of the problem in Hinduism than something desired. I guess that’s another reason I find it odd that a significant percentage of Christians today embrace reincarnation.)

Other religions have different perspectives, of course, but as far as I can tell, it would be hard to frame evil and suffering as a problem within their frameworks. (The exception is probably Judaism, though I don’t think the problem takes exactly the same shape that it does in Christianity.) And yet, as I’ve heard atheistic arguments over the years and as I’ve heard and read stories of people who embraced or converted to atheism rather than being raised within it, this problem of evil is often close to the core. I often don’t get the sense that people even see that it’s an anti-Christian argument and not one that actually supports atheism.

Finally, I find it strange that this particular argument is so common. After all, atheism itself offers a pretty poor ultimate response to pain and suffering. I don’t want to be flippant, but for all practical purposes, the modern atheistic answer seems to boil down to something pretty simple.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

I’ll take Hinduism or Buddhism or Shintoism or any of a host of other answers over that one. I guess I’ll never be a good materialist. That lens has never held any appeal for me. Yes, it can be difficult to resolve a God of love with all the suffering and evil that exists. But I would rather make that effort, however deep the rabbit hole goes, than abandon it.

But let’s say I was willing to embrace the materialist perspective. If I did, I think Nietzsche carries it to its logical conclusion. And that will be the topic of my next post in this series.


Speaking Carefully About God

Posted: March 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking Carefully About God

Last week Sarah Moon published an interesting blog post, Our Mother who art in heaven… I read the post and its comments and, as such things tend to do with me, it started percolating in the back of my head. At one point, I started to comment on the post, but then realized the things I had to say would work better as blog posts than as comments.

I want to begin by noting that I agree with the central theme — or at least what I understood to be the central theme — of Sarah’s post. There are far too many strands within Christianity that attempt to turn God not just into an exclusively male figure, but into a very narrow vision of what it means to be male. While some strands, such as that loudly (and often angrily) proclaimed by Mark Driscoll, are openly misogynistic and hateful, many are more subtle, but nonetheless deadly.

When we assign gender to God in any way we must always recognize apophatically that as much as an aspect of our experience of God might be like a certain gender, at the same time it is also not like that at all. For God transcends everything we can possibly say about him, every metaphor we could use, and every analogy we could possibly draw. God is deeply and thoroughly personal, though, not impersonal, so I think it’s even worse to use a neuter pronoun (such as it) instead. But when we use gendered pronouns to refer to God, we must always hold them loosely.

I have noted in the past, as Sarah does in her post, that our Holy Scriptures are clear that mankind is created in God’s image, both male and female. And while yes, we must say that God cannot thus be defined as some sort of super-powerful man, I think sometimes people miss what it says about humanity. Our gender is an inextricable aspect of each of us, but it does not define our humanity or our nature.

Jesus, the God-man, became fully human, taking on all that we are in order to defeat death and evil on our behalf and bind our nature to the divine nature. And while Jesus became a human man, his work was universal in nature. It is a continuing act of cosmic new creation. In and through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah, mankind — male and female — is now not only in the image of God, but shares through the Resurrection the unending nature of God and is able to participate in the divine energies of God. Jesus did not merely rescue humanity; he took us where we otherwise had no ability to go. So we all have a common nature that goes beyond gender, otherwise as a male, Jesus’ humanity could have only freed and made new the nature of human males, not the universal human nature.

I also believe it’s important that in our struggles with certain almost or even overtly misogynistic strands that we not read that struggle into places where it didn’t or doesn’t exist.  I read another post last week, On letting Junia fly, that makes that point well. It’s true that some Western Protestants attempt to deny that St. Junia was a woman and an apostle. It’s true that they can try to construct systems that cage women.

But St. Junia was never and is not now caged as a result. St. Junia does not need to be released. She does not need us to let her fly. She flew. She worked tirelessly as an apostle and accomplished much for the one she knew and called Lord and for his Church. And she has been venerated as a saint for centuries as a result. St. Junia flew. Nevertheless, as with all the apostles, her flight called her to tireless service of others for her entire life rather than personal glory or power.

So we do need to speak carefully about God in every way. I’ll explore how to speak of God in my next post.


Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Posted: February 22nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 22 – Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

This feast, celebrated on August 15 following a fourteen day fast, is the last Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year. I find it interesting and fitting that their liturgical calendar begins and ends with a feast of Mary. Dormition means ‘falling asleep’ using the Christian term from the New Testament for death. The term reflects our belief that death has been defeated by Christ; the metaphorical gates of Hades or Sheol have been burst asunder and death no longer enslaves humanity.

Tradition holds that the apostles were miraculously summoned and, except for Thomas, were all present when Mary reposed. Thomas arrived a few days later and desiring to see her one more time, convinced them to open the tomb. When the tomb was opened, it was found empty. This event is seen as one of the firstfruits of the resurrection of the faithful.

The feast is celebrated as the Solemnity of the Assumption by the Roman Catholic Church and focuses on her bodily assumption rather than her death. In fact, the dogma is phrased in a way that leaves open the question of whether or not Mary experienced death at all and many Catholics believe she did not. Pope Pious XII made the Assumption a dogma of the Catholic Church on November 1, 1950 as follows.

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

As with other such dogmas established in Catholicism as acts of Papal Infallibity, the Orthodox perceive this as another addition to the faith by the Catholic Church, widening the schism between the two. In this case, unlike the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Orthodox essentially agree on the event itself. But the Orthodox believe it is preserved in the faith through the liturgical life of the Church and not as a dogma.

Below is a recording of an ancient hymn of the feast in English.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 12

Posted: February 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 12

25.  When God brought into being natures endowed with intelligence and intellect He communicated to them, in His supreme goodness, four of the divine attributes by which He sustains, protects and preserves created things. These attributes are being, eternal being, goodness and wisdom. Of the four He granted the first two, being and eternal being, to their essence, and the second two, goodness and wisdom, to their volitive faculty, so that what He is in His essence the creature may become by participation. This is why man is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26). He is made in the image of God, since his being is in the image of God’s being, and his eternal being is in the image of God’s eternal being (in the sense that, though not without origin, it is nevertheless without end). He is also made in the likeness of God, since he is good in the likeness of God’s goodness, and wise in the likeness of God’s wisdom, God being good and wise by nature, and man by grace. Every intelligent nature is in the image of God, but only the good and the wise attain His likeness.

This text is not easy to unpack. Those of us endowed by God with intelligence and intellect have in our essence both being and eternal being. Death is not a natural part of our essence. St. Maximos’ parenthetical, though, is important. There was a competing view in the ancient world, and indeed in ours as well, that viewed human beings (or more often some non-material aspect of the human) as truly eternal — without beginning or end. St. Maximos is careful to distinguish his point. Unlike God, all created beings have an origin. There was a “time” when no creature, in whole or in part, existed. But for human beings, created in the image of God, from the point of our origin onward, we are in our essence eternal beings — sharing that with God through the grace of God.

But that is only the first step. We must learn to use the attributes of goodness and wisdom, again by grace, to participate in God and with God. Through that participation, we become united with God and attain his likeness. This is the heart of love, which is also the heart of theosis. For what does it mean to be good and wise? It means to unfailingly love others and God.


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.


Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Khouria Frederica has been giving a number of lectures on the Jesus Prayer recently. I wanted to share this lecture at Oberlin College in particular. In this talk, she provides a shorter version of her own personal journey, she explains the concept of nous, and she describes how some of the Western ideas about God look from an Eastern Christian perspective, especially to those who have been raised within an Eastern context.

I particularly appreciated some of the things Khouria Frederica said about Western atonement theories. She jumps to the heart of the matter and identifies their central problem. The Western theories describe a God who cannot forgive, but who must, instead, be paid. At one point, she says it’s almost like eating in a restaurant and being told that your bill has been paid. The owner of the restaurant was still paid. He didn’t really forgive your debt; he was just paid by someone else. I have actually heard people use exactly that metaphor to describe Christ’s work. And long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy, I apparently reacted it to it in an essentially Orthodox manner. The Western view of the atonement turns the parable of the prodigal son on its head. Instead of the Father embracing his prodigal son in love and forgiveness, it’s as though he tells his younger son that his offense is unforgivable. However, his older brother has never done anything wrong and has obeyed his father, so if he killed him instead, the father could accept that death as payment and allow the younger son to return.

Khouria Frederica uses an example in English to illustrate the language of sacrifice and substitution in Scripture. If a soldier were killed in battle, we might say that he paid for our freedom with his life or a similarly phrased statement. If someone was not a native English speaker, he might ask who was paid? But, of course, that’s not what we mean at all. In the same way, the language of payment or substitution in the Holy Scriptures does not describe an act where the Son pays our debt to the Father (as if we needed to be rescued from God), but rather the act of rescuing us from the grip of the evil one who used the power of sin and death to keep us in bondage.

I also really enjoyed one of her statements about the work of prayer and other disciplines. “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” Yep. I’m confused when people act as though Christianity ought to be easy. How can anything as complex as the reality of our lives and relationships be easy? Orthodox Christianity does not try to hide the difficulty and struggle of our faith. Yes, God loves us. Unconditionally. Unending. Unchanging love. But most of the time, we don’t even really want God. At least, that’s true of me.


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.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 17

Posted: February 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 17

47. Sin first enticed Adam and tricked him into breaking the commandment; and by giving substance to sensual pleasure and by attaching itself through such pleasure to the very root of nature, it brought the sentence of death on all nature, since through man it impels all created things towards death. All this was contrived by the devil, that spawn of sin and father of iniquity who through pride expelled himself from divine glory, and through envy of us and of God expelled Adam from paradise (cf. Wisd. 2:24), in order to destroy the works of God and dissolve what had been brought into existence.

Man was not created perfect and immortal. I often hear descriptions of creation in my Christian circles that sound like the point of the Incarnation was to restore man to a former condition. You find little sense of that anywhere in the first millenium of Christian faith and practice. Rather, the consistent sense is that man was created immature, almost like a child, with potential toward God and life or destruction and death and the freedom to grow. But in the creation narrative, humanity never really does anything but sin.

It’s not that we were immortal and God punished us with death for violating his rules. Who would want to worship a God like that? The goals of the devil and all he represents are destruction and annihilation. When we turned from our only source of life — something the story tells us we did immediately — we should have ceased to exist. God, who begrudges existence to none of his creation, extended the period of our physical death and preserved some remnant of our being in that shadowy half-existence the ancient Hebrews called Sheol.

I think a lot of people misunderstand the problem and thus perceive God and the work of Jesus in a strange light.