Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 23

Posted: March 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 23

54. All, whether angels or men, who in everything have maintained a natural justice in their disposition, and have made themselves actively receptive to the inner principles of nature in a way that accords with the universal principle of well-being, will participate totally in the divine life that irradiates them; for they have submitted their will to God’s will. Those who in all things have failed to maintain a natural justice in their disposition, and have been actively disruptive of the inner principles of nature in a way that conflicts with the universal principle of well-being, will lapse completely from divine life, in accordance with their dedication to what lacks being; for they have opposed their will to God’s will. It is this that separates them from God, for the principle of well-being, vivified by good actions and illumined by divine life, is not operative in their will.

Do we set our will against God? Or do we choose to align it with him? Ultimately, that’s the question. Do we or do we not love God?

From what little we know of angels, it does seem that the nature of their alignment as spiritual beings is different from ours as embodied beings. It seems as though once they choose to align their will either with or against God, that decision immediately permeates their whole being. And it’s unclear whether, having once chosen, they are able to choose differently.

It’s different with us. When we align our will, it takes a great deal of time to permeate our body. And we can shift our will toward God and away from God again and again. The saints sometimes lived to see their will and love toward God permeate their bodies. It’s my sense that many of us don’t reach that point, though it’s what we should strive to do.


Once Saved, Always Saved Deconstructed

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I was quietly minding my own business the other day when the following thought abruptly popped, fully formed, into my conscious mind.

The dogma “once saved, always saved” is soteriological monothelitism.

Yes, the inside of my head is often a strange and sometimes frightening place. That’s just a small taste of what it’s like in there. However, as I turned the thought around and looked at it from various angles, I realized it seemed more true than not. There’s a lot of information packed into that short sentence. In this post, I’ll try to unpack it.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “once saved, always saved” is a particular doctrine found among some modern Christian groups. I’m most familiar with it in a Southern Baptist context. Basically it’s a way of expressing the idea that once a person makes an authentic (and that’s a discussion in and of itself) commitment to Christ, you are sealed as a Christian and nothing you can subsequently will or do can change that status or your status as one of the saved.

In the history of Baptists in America, there are a number of strands which contributed to their development and formation over the years. Some of those strands were either outright Calvinistic or at least adopted some of the ideas of John Calvin, particularly the dogmas of total depravity and the perseverance of the saints. The latter is an intriguing, if misguided, dogma. It postulates a God who, for reasons known only to himself and which we can never know or understand, creates some human beings for salvation and others for eternal damnation. There’s nothing we can do to move from one category to the other one, but if we are in the group predestined for salvation, then we will be ultimately saved no matter what.

However, within this system there’s really no way to tell with which group you belong. Are you damned or are you saved? It’s within this context that the dogma of “once saved, always saved” seems to have developed over time. Basically, it holds that we’re all born damned. (Even so, most variations will give infants and small children a free pass from damnation. That free pass lasts until some uncertain age when the child is able to intellectually grasp the various doctrines and teachings about God.) Over the course of our lives, though, we always have the option to exercise our will and choose to commit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once we do so, we become a saint and cannot become anything else.

When you understand the context of this dogma’s development, it obviously is designed to address the uncertainty inherent in the somewhat older dogma of perseverance of the saints while retaining its preferred features. Since it first requires an exercise of will to become a saint, presumably one would know whether or not you’ve done so. In that way it removes the uncertainty. You can actually know whether you are in the damned or the saved group. (In practices, it doesn’t really work that way and very often those preaching or evangelizing will even deliberately try to instill doubt about your status.)

The dogma seems intended to provide assurance of a sort. You can actually know you are in the saved group and you can be certain that you’ll remain in that group as well. Until I understood that history, the way Baptists often talk about assurance and perceive a lack of assurance in other groups always seemed very odd to me. When you understand the context, it makes more sense.

Going back to my thought, soteriological is just the fancy English word we use for discussions about salvation. It’s really easy to talk right past each other if you assume that salvation automatically means the same thing to all people. It begs the question, what are you being saved from? And what are you being saved to? It even begs the question of what does it even mean that you are saved or are being saved? I’ve noticed that among Baptists, at least, salvation tends to be externalized. It’s something you possess rather than a process you are undergoing. In my mind, from the very beginning, I had an image of saving someone as an active process. That’s probably why I always felt like I understood the Fathers, who described the Church in various terms, but always as a vehicle for the ongoing process of salvation. The Church is an ark, rescuing us from destruction. The Church is a hospital for the healing of our souls and the restoration of our true humanity. Their metaphors describe a process you undergo rather than a thing you have.

And that conforms more to our normal experience of reality. Think about the times we might save or try to save others. If I save someone from drowning, it’s an action and a process. If I try to save someone from abuse, that implies a lengthy series of actions. If I try to save someone from an addiction that is destroying them, I’m committing myself to a long process with uncertain results. When you stop and think about it, salvation as a noun is really very odd. What’s the thing that it describes?

And that brings us to the last word in my thought, monothelitism. Monothelitism was the heresy that was finally resolved in the sixth ecumenical council. St. Maximos the Confessor, the one who wrote the texts of love I’ve been working through on my blog, was the great champion of that council, even though he did not survive to see it. He suffered greatly for the faith when it seemed all the powers stood against him. He had his tongue cut out so he could not speak and he had his hand cut off so he could not write. Nothing stopped him from teaching the truth about Christ, though, and his work kept the truth of Christianity alive from the ground up. Monothelitism is the teaching that Christ had only one will, the divine will. Basically, the divine will destroyed or overpowered his human will and guided him throughout his life without effort or opposition.

The problem with this view is that it makes Christ something other than fully human. If he had no human will that he had to align with the divine will, then he was not really like us. We have to struggle, and often fail, to align our will with God’s. If Christ did not share in that struggle, even though he never failed, then he cannot heal our own wills. It turns the Incarnation from something glorious and incredibly risky on God’s part into a sham.

Once saved, always saved” turns monothelitism on its head and applies it to us instead. Basically, it says that whenever we once commit to Christ, the divine will for all practical purposes obliterates our human will. Sure, we can still perform individual acts of evil, but we no longer have a will with which we can reject God. And whatever we may then be, I wouldn’t call such a creature human, much less capable of love. Moreover, if God simply wanted to turn us into subhuman creatures, what’s the point of the whole charade of history. He could have overtaken our will from the outset if such a thing were in his nature. Why would he wait until we had actually taken a step toward him to treat us so brutally?

No, I have to reject the idea that our wills mean nothing. God is truly not willing that any should perish, which means that it’s our wills that oppose his efforts. And it’s not God’s nature — it’s not the nature of love — to contravene or force the will of another, much less wipe it from existence. My struggle is to turn my will to God, who has already done everything necessary to save us all. I need to want God. It’s certain that he wants me.

But I retain always the power to turn my will away from God. It’s for that reason we pray for help, for mercy, which God offers in overflowing abundance.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 22

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

53. By a single infinitely powerful act of will God in His goodness will gather all together, angels and men, the good and the evil. But, although God pervades all things absolutely, not all will participate in Him equally: they will participate in Him according to what they are.

In this text, St. Maximos begins to draw the threads of his answer to the proceedings questions together. Yes, God draws all creation to himself. God fills all things. But angels and men participate in God according to what we are.

If that thought does not give you pause, I don’t know what will. It’s hard for us to be honest with ourselves, but I have some inkling of the sort of person I am. Do I love God? I don’t know that I would be so bold. Most of the time, I believe I want to love God. I’ve reached a point in my life where I am confident he loves me, for I know there is no-one he does not love.

But do I love God?

Can I even answer that question honestly and without delusion?

I see how little I love my enemies and I realize, if that is indeed a measure, then I don’t love God very much at all. To what extent can a man who does not love his enemies participate in a God who loved and forgave the men who mocked, tortured, and unjustly killed him?

I think so many of us today are reluctant to ask for mercy because we cannot see ourselves as we truly are.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 21

Posted: March 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 21

52.  If a person refuses to allow God, the abode of all who are saved and source of their well-being, to sustain his life and to assure his well-being, what will become of him? And if the righteous man will be saved only with much difficulty (cf. Prov. 11:31. LXX; 1 Pet. 4:18), what will become of the man who has not attained any principle of devotion and virtue in this present life?

St. Maximos continues to develop the question. Some of us want nothing to do with God, relentlessly turn from him again and again, and not only fail to shape our lives according to his likeness, but actively strive to fashion ourselves in a different likeness. What of those of us who walk that path?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

Posted: February 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

51. God is the limitless, eternal and infinite abode of those who attain salvation. He is all things to all men according to their degree of righteousness; or, rather, He has given Himself to each man according to the measure in which each man, in the light of spiritual knowledge, has endured suffering in this life for the sake of righteousness. Thus He resembles the soul that reveals its activity in the members of the body according to the actual capacity of each member, and that itself keeps the members in being and sustains their life. This being the case, ‘where will the ungodly and the sinner appear’ (1 Pet. 4:18) if he is deprived of such grace? For if a man cannot receive the active presence of God on which his well-being depends, and so fails to attain the divine life that is beyond age, time and place, where will he be?

This text refines and expands on the question from the previous text. If God is the one who is the source of our life, where will those of us who do not want that life be? It’s really an important question. The answer cannot be in some place apart from God since there is no such place. Nothing can exist apart from God. Personally, I like the time St. Maximos takes to properly develop the question. It’s a most serious one.


The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

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

If you read or listen to almost anything about the Jesus Prayer, you will also often encounter the phrase, prayer of the heart. They sometimes seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they are not actually the same thing. I like the approach Khouria Frederica takes in distinguishing them.

The Jesus Prayer refers to the actual words of the prayer. By an act of volition or will, we choose to say those words. It can be somewhat mechanistic at first. The Jesus Prayer is a distinct discipline marked by act of repeating those words and it can be used to discuss the history of that specific discipline.

Prayer of the heart refers to the action of the Prayer, something that may occur, by God’s grace, within a person who diligently practices the Prayer.

The prayer “descends into heart” when, instead of simple mental repetition as an act of will, the prayer becomes effortless and spontaneous, flowing from your innermost being.

You discover that the Holy Spirit has been there, praying, all along. Then heart and soul, body and mind, memory and will, the very breath of life itself, everything that you have and are unites in gratitude and joy, tuned like a violin string to the name of Jesus.

Prayer of the heart is gift of the Spirit, not something we can control or force. I hesitate to say that I have experienced it, though I have experienced moments that sound similar to some of the descriptions. I’m a poor practitioner, though, and am well aware of my own capacity for self-delusion. I would never present myself as an example for anyone else to follow.

I do, however, have no doubts about the Jesus Prayer itself. In part, I think, that’s because it came to me before I had any intellectual understanding or knowledge of it. I discovered the Jesus Prayer was an ancient and enduring prayer tradition long after I discovered the Jesus Prayer. Unlike any other practice or discipline I have developed or tried over the years, this is not one I developed first in my intellect.

When I accepted the idea of breath prayers as a general concept from Bro. Lawrence and determined to attempt this discipline, this specific prayer immediately welled up from within me. It almost demanded that I pray it. I would try other prayers and find myself praying this one. And it never felt like something new. I’m not sure I can explain it, but it has always felt like the Jesus Prayer was consciously expressing the prayer within me of which I had not previously been consciously aware.

I suppose I would say the Jesus Prayer can unite our mind and heart, our intellect and nous, together in the Spirit. It’s a gift of God for our salvation.


Do You Love Me?

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »
 






Musicals were part of the air I breathed growing up. Stage, television, movies — and the albums from musicals often playing at home. I still remember the songs. They punctuate my life and my perception of the world around me. Fiddler on the Roof captures many of the things that make us human. Even when I was no more than 7 or 8 years old, I remember the song above was one of my favorites.

Do you love me?

Is that not the question we all ask? Is that not the deep yearning of our heart? We want to love and we want to be loved, but what does love look like? Oh, for a season it can look and feel like the following.

The feelings in those moments can be overwhelming — almost like a drug. Sometimes, when I see so many people leaping from one relationship to another, I wonder if they have become addicted to that feeling and are constantly chasing a new rush. Love does not use another to meet your own needs, so if that is so then what they are feeling is no longer love. It’s the natural emotions of love twisted into a passion.

The love Tevye and Golde describe grows over time through shared lives. You don’t really see it happening as you struggle to survive and fight your way through the crises life throws your way. One day you look at this other person and you realize they have become the story of your life. Two separate lives have become one shared life. Oh, there are still individual strands and unique threads, but the core around which they are all woven has become one.

And when you do perceive that reality, you see that love is not ultimately the grand drama of Romeo & Juliet. Rather, love is that text on a weekend morning.

Coffee on please. Thx.

Love is not the violent wind that tears down mountains — though it does knock down our delusions of self-sufficiency.

Love is not the earthquake that knocks us off our feet — it’s the stable ground on which we learn how to stand.

Love is not the raging fire destroying life — it’s the fire of the hearth.

Love is the still, small voice.

May we have ears to hear.


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.


Thirsting for God 13 – Not Just for Grown-ups!

Posted: January 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 13 – Not Just for Grown-ups!

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

In the last section of his book, The Way of Love, Matthew takes some of the issues and questions that are most controversial to those raised and formed within a particular sort of Protestantism and spends an entire chapter exploring each one in turn. Although I’ve really only been a Christian within those circles, I wasn’t particularly shaped by it during my childhood formation, so none of the particular beliefs he covers have ever been the bugaboos for me that they seem to be for many. I had “tried on” the beliefs when they were presented to me as I normally do, but most of the ones he covers, when I compared them to the Holy Scriptures within what I could learn of their historical context, had long since collapsed. Unless you buy into the idea that the Church went off-track shortly after (or even before) the Apostles died and we can now somehow reconstruct the “real” faith two thousand years later, the Protestant versions of the beliefs he covers in these chapters have no substance.

In this first chapter of this section, he works through the issue of infant baptism. I’ve covered my thoughts on infant baptism elsewhere, most notably in my post, Rebaptized?, so I didn’t find much that was surprising to me in this chapter. I noticed one thing Matthew confesses was normal for him was to excerpt particular snippets of Scripture. For instance, he would normally read the first part of Acts 2:38 and stop reading.

Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.’

Then he would make an assertion I’ve heard a lot. Babies can’t repent so babies can’t be baptized. (I would also add that babies don’t need to repent, but some strands of Protestantism would disagree with me.) Of course, the above is not actually what St. Peter said at the conclusion of that first proclamation of the euvangelion after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Here’s what he actually says in full with Matthew’s italics added for emphasis.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Matthew then illustrates his point with the encounter by Peter and John of believers in Samaria who had been baptized but who had not received the Holy Spirit. They rectify it because the lives of these believers could not be complete until the whole process was complete. Matthew then points out that the argument usually hinges on the wrong question.

Thus the real issue that must be discussed, when it comes to infants, is not, “Can babies repent?” Rather, it is, “Can the Spirit of God dwell within infants?”

That’s not the way I phrased it myself in the past, but I like it. Of course, my answer to the correct question has always been an emphatic yes. If I can relate to and love an infant, and be loved in return, how much more can God do the same?

Later in the chapter, Matthew raises an interesting question I had never considered in precisely those terms.

But there is another important reason why God would take up residence in the lives of these infants. You see, unless He does, the child will never have the real opportunity to decide for himself whether or not he will follow God. Why do I say that? Well, if the Holy Spirit does not take up residence in the infant, guess who will. Does Satan give those whom he afflicts a free choice? Hardly. No, the only one who would ever allow a child to have free choice when it comes to following or rejecting Christ is Christ Himself.

Yes, every child will have to grow up at some point and will have to decide for themselves whether or not to follow Christ. In fact, it’s a decision each of us must make again and again over the course of our lives. The Orthodox try to give their children every advantage on that day through baptism, the seal of the Holy Spirit, communion, and by surrounding the child with the life of the Church. That strikes me as the wiser approach. I’ll add that the Orthodox Baptismal Rite still includes an exorcism and spitting on the devil to reject him. For those interested, this is the Greek baptismal rite. (There are slight variations from one country to another. For instance, I’ve heard an Arabic rite and after the seal of the Holy Spirit with the sign of the Cross in oil (on head, mouth, hands, feet, etc.) during Chrismation, everyone present cries out, “Seal!”) Normally the baptism is done within the context of a Divine Liturgy, from what I understand, and the one baptized is then also communed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 8

Posted: January 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 8

29. The intelligence recognizes two kinds of knowledge of divine realities. The first is relative, because it is confined to the intelligence and its intellections, and does not entail any real perception, through actual experience, of what is known. In our present life we are governed by this kind of knowledge. The second is true and authentic knowledge. Through experience alone and through grace it brings about, by means of participation and without the help of the intelligence and its intellections, a total and active perception of what is known. It is through this second kind of knowledge that, when we come into our inheritance, we receive supernatural and ever-activated deification. The relative knowledge that resides in the intelligence and its intellections is said to stimulate our longing for the real knowledge attained by participation. This real knowledge, which through experience and participation brings about a perception of what is known, supersedes the knowledge that resides in the intelligence and the intellections.

This text can be a little tricky to untangle, but if I understand it properly it divides knowledge into two realms. One is intellectual and confined to the workings of our own mind. This knowledge is relative because it has no basis in the perception of actual experience. Authentic knowledge is gained by the actual experience of God through the energies of his grace and participation with him. The relative knowledge of our own intellect can spur our desire for true and authentic knowledge, but that’s the limit of its reach. I think I can be guilty of confusing the former knowledge with the latter and it makes me wonder just how widespread that confusion might be.