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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 19

Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 19

47.  There are many people in the world who are poor in spirit, but not in the way that they should be; there are many who mourn, but for some financial loss or the death of their children; many are gentle, but towards unclean passions; many hunger and thirst, but only to seize what does not belong to them and to profit from injustice ; many are merciful, but towards their bodies and the things that serve the body; many are pure in heart, but for the sake of self-esteem; many are peace-makers, but by making the soul submit to the flesh; many are persecuted, but as wrongdoers; many are reviled, but for shameful sins. Only those are blessed who do or suffer these things for the sake of Christ and after His example. Why? Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and they shall see God (cf. Matt. 5:3-12). It is not because they do or suffer these things that they are blessed, for those of whom we have spoken above do the same; it is because they do them and suffer them for the sake of Christ and after His example.

I’m reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. He saw himself accurately first. He said to the other thief that they were only getting what they deserved. And then he proclaimed that Jesus had done nothing wrong. It was then that he perceived Jesus as Lord.


Mary 23 – Queen of Heaven

Posted: February 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Mary, Queen of Heaven

I thought it would be fitting to close my series on Mary with a reflection on her title as Queen of Heaven. I know from experience that many of my fellow Protestant Christians find that appellation disturbing, though I’m not sure if it’s for theological reasons or because of our American discomfort with monarchical titles. In order to understand this title for Mary, we have to first look at Christ and specifically his Ascension.

To be honest, it’s not clear to me what the typical modern Evangelical thinks or believes about the Ascension of Christ. Sometimes I almost get the sense that they have a vision of Jesus as some cosmic spacemen flying off into outer space. But that’s certainly not what the Scriptures of Christian tradition are describing. When someone was crowned king or emperor, they ascended to their throne, which means they entered into their power. That’s what we see happening with Christ, but he was not ascending to a typical throne. Rather, he was ascending to the throne of God, to the seat of power in the Kingdom of the Heavens (which is to say God’s Kingdom).

And that’s where the “clouds” enter into the picture. Smoke or clouds were associated with the visible presence of God in Hebrew imagery. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt in the desert, he did so as a pillar of clouds. When the shekinah glory of God entered and rested upon the first temple, it did so as smoke. When Isaiah enters the presence of God in visions, he is surrounded by clouds and smoke. And so when Jesus ascends into the clouds, it’s a way of saying he is entering his power and taking the throne of heaven. Heaven, of course, is overlapping and interlocking with the material creation, but it is presently veiled from us, so as Jesus enters his power, he vanishes from their sight. But he didn’t leave and go someplace else. As we read in Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” And sometimes that veil is pulled back. Stephen, the protomartyr saw the throne of God at the time of his death. Paul experienced the reality of the third heaven.

So Jesus the Christ, Son of God, is in Christian terms, the reigning King of heaven and earth. In Hebrew culture, going back at least to the time of the Davidic kings, who is the queen? It’s the king’s mother, also called the queen mother. In fact, that’s true in many cultures. In England, the mother of the monarch is even affectionately called the Queen Mum.

So Mary is rightly called the Queen of Heaven because her son is the reigning King of Heaven. Of all her titles, this should be one on which every Christian can agree. If we deny her the title of queen mother, we deny her son as king.

Now, as the Queen of Heaven, what does Mary do? She does what she has always done, which we see exemplified in the story of the wedding at Cana in John 2. She points to her son and commands us all, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”

Are not those the words we all need to hear?


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.


Heterodox?

Posted: March 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The brouhaha over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has continued to percolate in the back of my mind. Last week I expressed my frustration over the more modern and truncated understanding of “hell” that many were calling the traditional or historical view and tried to share perspectives that are at least as traditional and historical, if not more so. But even underlying that, I’ve been bemused by those tossing around the idea of an orthodox or heterodox view.

By and large, the individuals using those words have been Protestants of one sort or another. For that part of my life in which I’ve been Christian, I’ve only ever been Protestant, but I’ve still never really understood the basis on which a Protestant calls their own belief orthodox or that of another heterodox. The traditional meaning of heresy flows from the idea that those who hold and promote a particular idea have chosen their own, different faith in practice or belief. Any particular heterodox teaching or understanding is always contrasted to the right worship or belief according to the common tradition of practice and interpretation in the church.

By that definition, it seems to me that to one degree or another, every Protestant is, of necessity, a heretic. One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism, at least as I’ve understood and experienced it, is that every individual determines or chooses for himself or herself the truth of any given practice, belief, or interpretation. The fact that the thousands of groups of Protestants share some superficial similarities perhaps disguises that underlying reality and what are actually some pretty deep differences. Even when the same words are used, they are often defined and understood differently within different groups.

There is much in that particular Protestant perspective on faith that appeals to me. After all, my formation was more deeply pluralistic and even relativistic than that of most modern, conservative Protestants and that perspective is deeply relativistic. I’m not even sure how I could ever stop deconstructing propositions and choosing what I believe and practice. It happens that I’ve discovered that much of what I’ve come to believe about God (or in many cases had always believed about God) actually coincides with Orthodox teaching. But that doesn’t even vaguely make me Orthodox. I see the distinction even if it’s not as clear to others.

One of the largest groups of Bell’s critics seem to lie among the Neo-Calvinists or those with Calvinistic leanings. I try not to pick on Calvinists too much, but they have been very vocal in their evangel of Hell, and they do have a well-articulated theology that describes a very different God and a very different humanity from that described by most of Christianity. I’ve also noticed that group seems particularly quick to use the orthodox and heterodox labels.

But on what basis?

After all, Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent and in other places and the Orthodox, at least in the 17th century Council of Jerusalem, have both anathematized the core tenets of Calvinism. Taken together, that represents well over a billion Christians world-wide and two of the most ancient traditions in Christianity. Whether you agree or disagree with them, isn’t it strange for the comparatively small and relatively modern sect of Calvin to be acting like the standard-bearers for Christian orthodoxy?

Or is that just me?

As a Protestant, it seems to me we can each say that, as an individual, we either do or don’t believe something is true. And it also seems to me that’s really all we have the authority to say. Having asserted our right to define truth for ourselves, we have relinquished any credible authority to assert it over another. Oh, that obviously stops no-one from attempting to assert their will to power in various ways. And in the history of Protestantism, many of those ways have been violent. My stint as a Christian has been in the Baptist tribe and many of our martyrs were killed by Calvinists and other Protestant Christian groups.

Nevertheless, having asserted our own right to choose, we are hypocrites when we try to deny that same right to another.


Love Wins

Posted: March 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

No, I haven’t read the Rob Bell book, so this isn’t a review. I may or may not read the book at some point. However, the rather strange controversy over the promotion of the book has brought to my mind many things I’ve read over the years. I decided to write a post in order to share a few of them.

Fear of torment is the way of a slave, desire of reward in the heavenly kingdom is the way of a hireling, but God’s way is that of a son, through love. — St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain

I heard a professor from a Christian university ask Rob Bell what it did to evangelism if Hell was not an actual place and, I suppose, a looming threat. I had several thoughts when I heard that question. The first, of course, is that the idea of Hell as place seems to owe more to the ancient pagan Greek concept of Hades than anything identifiably Jewish or Christian. I’ve explored Hell elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that here. But, Dante aside, it’s not the Christian understanding that there’s some place under the ground where the dead go.

But even more I thought of St. Nicodemos. Fear should never be the driving force in Christianity. Yes, it’s true that fear can be the beginning of wisdom, but perfect love drives out fear. If our evangelism attempts to instill fear or motivate through a promise of future reward, then whatever it is, it is not Christian. If we are driven to evangelize from fear, then I would have to question our motives as Christians. Actions taken either to instill fear or motivate through the promise of reward also look highly manipulative to me. And manipulation is many things, but it is most emphatically not love.

How then should we proclaim Christ to people? The words of St. Isaac the Syrian are, I think, good ones.

Conquer evil men by your gentle kindness, and make zealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind.  — St. Isaac of Syria

When we believe that we need to threaten people with hell in order to evangelize, we are capitulating to our own will to power. We are manipulating the other person in order to convert them to our way of thinking. We can tell ourselves it’s for their good, but that’s a lie. We are satisfying our own lust for power and control. When we act in these ways, we dehumanize our subject, treating them like an object to satisfy our own passions. Yes, we clothe it in noble terms. We dress it up in piety. But that’s all lipstick on a pig. God does not treat us that way.

Ultimately, of course, this train of thought rends the Christian understanding of God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth beyond all recognition. Instead of a good God of love, we end up with a capricious God who cannot forgive and requires payment for all debts. And if you do not hide behind the payment offered by the Son to the Father, then you will suffer forever. Our finite offenses reap infinite punishment. This God is not only capricious, he’s a torturer of the worst sort. No, that’s not the language used, but that’s how it deconstructs.

St. Isaac saw that clearly. This is not a new discussion. Modern Christianity has not discovered much that ancient Christians did not consider.

The man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men; and if it were not that, we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof. — St. Isaac of Syria

The above is exactly what so many modern Christians do when they describe God as just. The justice they have in mind is vengeance and retribution and the God they describe is an evil God.

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! — St. Isaac of Syria

Indeed. People want God to treat others justly according to their own personal sense of justice, whatever that might be. But the truth is that we cannot judge because we do not know and we do not love. But we cannot stop God’s love.

Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence. — St. John of Kronstadt

And, in turn, we are judged by our love.

Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. — Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud – he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard. — Elder Sampson of Russia

As Christians, we should be praying always for love to win.


Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Jesus Prayer – Introduction

Posted: February 11th, 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.

In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green is careful to state that she is no expert in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In fact, like most of us, she tends to often live as though she could “pull down a window shade” between God and herself. It’s something most of us do. We don’t pray constantly because we don’t live with a constant sense of the presence of God. If you pause and consider the way we live, it’s a bit ridiculous. In many ways we’re like the small child who hides her eyes and believes we can’t see her because she can’t see us. It’s endearing in a toddler, but we would look askance at an adult who still lived as though that were true. Yet, there is no place we can go where God is not.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from they presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! (Ps. 139:7-8)

Indeed, since God is the source of life and sustains all that is, if we could escape God’s presence, we would immediately cease to exist.

The Jesus Prayer is a means by which we learn to experience God directly. Our problem is that we do not perceive reality truly. I was listening to a lecture and I was struck by something said about the Transfiguration of our Lord. Jesus did not change during the transfiguration. He was always God — always filled with the divine uncreated light. Rather, people — including his disciples — were not able to see him truly. And in the Transfiguration they were granted the grace to experience the full reality of Jesus. We still have the same problem today. All creation is filled with the glory of God and we do not have eyes to see it.

Khouria Frederica mentions the nous in her introduction. I’ve written about it before, but I like the way she describes it. The cogitative part of our mind, the intellect, is not the nous. Rather, the nous is the receptive part of our mind. It’s the part that experiences, that understands. The Jesus Prayer helps us still our noisy intellect so we can perceive and hear God. That strikes me as an especially good description.

There is an aspect of learning to still the mind in forms of meditation that I’ve practiced in the past. I’ve always had a sense that some aspect of that was needed in Christian practice even before the Jesus Prayer came to me. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalter exhorts, but the truth is that we do not know how to be still. Our minds never stop whirling.

When Christians pray the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to still our mind in order to open our nous to God. It’s a very specific goal and we call on Jesus as Lord to have mercy on us and help us. As someone who is now a Christian looking back on some of those other forms of meditation I’ve practiced I see the danger that I didn’t see then. We do not wish to open ourselves, our nous, to receive anything or any experience. That is unwise. Rather we seek to hear and experience the one we call Lord.

I found this book a good, practical guide to the Jesus Prayer. This is the prayer that came to me some years before I even knew it was a tradition. I thank God constantly for that grace. And I look forward to reflecting on it once more.


Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife

Posted: February 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

For those who found my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) interesting, I wanted to provide a link to an article on Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible that I read this past week. The article goes into more detail on some topics than I did in my series, especially when it comes to the different ways Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna were often translated to fit the preconceptions of English translators. I agree with the author that it would have been better to have simply transliterated each since they are, after all, what we would consider proper names. That would have been less misleading and ultimately clearer.

There are also details I didn’t know. The section on the “burning stone” (sulfur) and the way it was seen and thus named was new to me, though it fits perfectly with everything I already knew of the ancient cultures involved. The often heard English phrase “fire and brimstone” would thus be better translated “divine fire” which makes a lot more sense. And, of course, since light and fire were inseparable concepts before the advent of electrical lights, it could also be understood as “divine light.”

The history of Origen is more complicated than the author of the article takes time to explore. Unlike most heretics, he was not condemned until well after his death and it’s unclear if his followers took his teachings farther than he ever intended. Also, I think it’s important to speak clearly on one matter. The Church condemned the assertion that everyone would ultimately be saved as heresy. As far as I can tell, the incredulity expressed by those like St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian that the love of God would not eventually win over the even the most twisted and cold human heart is not rejected out of hand. Pious hope and prayer for all human beings is allowed.

It’s a very good article on balance, I think. I don’t hesitate to recommend it.


Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.