Speaking of God – A Good God

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – A Good God

For you are a good God and love mankind, and to you do we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. (Orthodox Great Vespers liturgy)

When we speak of God, it’s important that we remember always that he is a good God who loves humanity. I notice that aspect often seems to become obscured in modern Western discussions about God. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in certain Calvinistic strands that either explicitly or implicitly end up attributing both good and evil to God. A God who is responsible for evil is not a good God. It’s one of the more outrageous assertions that can be made about the God we find fully revealed in Christ. (Moreover, it’s only in Christ that the creation of the human being is finished.) I thoroughly agree with the Orthodox that any such claims about God are utterly heretical and contrary to the faith which has been handed down to us.

But it can take subtler forms. For instance, in the strands of evangelicalism within which I swim, it’s very common to hear “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when tragedy strikes. It permeates thought, conversation, teaching, and song. The concept comes from Job and illustrates one potential issue with lifting verses and phrases at will from our Holy Scriptures and applying them without the guidance of a deep and apostolic tradition. Here’s the verse from Job.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21.

The first thing that we have to recognize is that in his fatalism, Job is actually incorrect! (Though the next verse goes on to note that Job did not, in truth, charge God with wrongdoing.) Yes, in a broad sense God allows freedom in creation. That’s part of being a good God who does not deny any good thing to his beloved creation, even if that good thing can be twisted. In the context of the narrative, we have something of a “God’s eye view” that Job lacks. We know that God took nothing from Job. Satan did.

But Job’s perception makes perfect cultural sense. It was normal in the ancient world to ascribe all sorts of things to the gods. We see that in, for one example, Homer. At one point in the Iliad when, speaking of the son of Atreus and godlike Achilles, he asks, “Which of the gods brought them both together fighting?” It’s not a rhetorical or allegorical question for Homer. He has an answer. Apollo did. Job, from the context of the narrative, doesn’t worship multiple gods. He worships the one God. So when he loses everything, it’s natural for him to ascribe it to God. It’s also what his friends assume — which is why they spend so much time trying to explain why God must have done it and Job must have deserved it.

But we know from the story that God didn’t take anything from Job. God never really explains himself to Job, but as the reader that’s one of the things we must understand. (Job is also a type or shadow of Christ as the suffering servant in the narrative. But that’s another discussion.)

Moreover, that should not come as any surprise to a Christian. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it’s so that we might by sons of our Father in heaven. Why? Because God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He is a good God who loves mankind without condition or reservation.

Ours is the God who makes all things new, from whom the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We respond to evil by doing good, by blessing, and by acting to heal and restore.

Our God is a good God — a God of divine love. We must always speak of him in those terms when we dare to speak at all.


Thirsting for God 15 – Liturgy

Posted: January 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 15 – Liturgy

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

One of the things that quickly struck me as I gave Christianity another and deeper look was the anachronism of worship in the Southern Baptist context to which I turned. It’s not uniquely Baptist, of course. It’s shared throughout the non-liturgical denominations and non-denominations. There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil in that worship style. Rather, the voice in the back of my head almost immediately complained that nobody in any culture in the ancient world would have ever considered that to be worship. I spent years trying to decide if that fact really mattered and trying to see if I could uncover even the slightest shred of historical basis for that modern worship style.

After living embedded in a non-liturgical worship context for a decade and a half, I’ve reached the conclusion that it does matter. Even in that period of time, I’ve seen the act and method of worship change, though subtly. It’s obvious to me how subject to whim and preference it is and how, as a result, it shifts with the wind of culture and preference.

And I never found any historical connection whatsoever. Mostly I found overtly anachronistic views which demonstrated little knowledge, for instance, of how an ancient Roman household was structured and ordered or even how worship was ordered in the Jewish synagogues within which the Apostles first preached.

Matthew has an interesting statement at the outset of this chapter. I would like to share it in full.

As someone who all my adult life was intimately involved in leading the worship experience, I know something about modern Protestant worship. What the Protestant is looking for, and what pastors and worship leaders are hoping to provide, is a worship experience that is “meaningful.” What does “meaningful” mean? First, the music needs to inspire people to feel love and devotion for God, and allow them the opportunity to express those feelings. Secondly, the sermon needs to give them something fresh and meaty to ponder — something that will inspire the congregation to follow God.

If I’m sitting in the pews, my goal is “to get something out of this” — to find godly joy and inspiration. What do I need in order for that to happen? Just what the leaders are trying to give me — good music and a good sermon.

It took me a long time to understand the above and, as a result, I sometimes had a hard time understanding some of the comments people made. Orthodox worship, by contrast, has not changed in any of its central details in some 1600 years and, just as importantly, its present form is consistent with earlier recorded forms. It’s basically the same worship fleshed out. (You can even still see the influence of first century Jewish temple and synagogue worship.) Matthew makes another excellent point.

When the primary goal of a worshiper is to gain inspiration, ritual worship may seem pointless. But when his objective is to give obedient reverence, ritual worship is the only type of worship that makes any sense. …

The Orthodox Christian worships in an environment where God Himself directs the acts of worship; the Protestant, on the other hand, must hope that God can somehow inspire people to create meaningful acts of worship. …

[In Orthodox worship] the service is always good, the worship is right, and whether I get inspired or not is entirely up to me.

In other words, the central object of worship is God. I’m sure that’s at least part of the reason that the only worship God has ever directly ordained has been liturgical, ritual worship. He knows we need to take the focus off ourselves and we need help in order to do so. Which leads us to Matthew’s final realization in this chapter.

I finally came to realize that when I was a Protestant, I judged the quality of worship by what it did for me, not what it did to exalt God.

And that pretty much sums it up.


Thirsting for God 6 – History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


America’s Four Gods

Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America’s Four Gods

Two Baylor professors have published a book that is gaining a fair amount of attention. Baylor has been conducting a different sort of survey of religion over the last few years. These surveys go beyond the basic sorts of questions about affiliation and attendance and probe attitudes and specific practices. This sort of approach is more valuable and useful in our richly pluralistic nation.

In America’s Four Gods,  the authors note that across the spectrum of religious belief, Americans tend to divide into four different groups with very different basic images of the God they worship. On their site, they have a brief little quiz to identify the God in which you believe and compare you to your demographic. (I’m in a minority in mine — well below 20% in all demographics. But I knew that already.) And they also have a little test of your response to images. Both are a fun little diversion. America’s Four Gods has also gained some media attention on ABC News and in USA Today.

Of course, that’s not a new idea to me. My formation was more pluralistic than most, so I’ve always found it natural to listen to how someone describes their God, try to understand that God, and decide if their God was a God I was willing to worship or follow. I did that when exploring all sorts of religions and religious practices. I didn’t stop doing it as I’ve become Christian. Nor did I have a foundational assumption — as many seem to have — that “Christians” all worshiped the same God. Instead, I looked at everything they said about God and made the same sort of decision about the God they described.

That’s why I phrase things the way I do. When I say, for instance, that Calvin’s God repulses me and I would be something other than Christian if I believed his God was really the Christian God, I’m judging the God he describes and deciding whether or not I am willing to worship that God. In the case of Calvin’s God, it’s as clear as such things can be. There’s nothing about that God that I find the slightest bit attractive or worthy of worship. As a result, I tend to use Calvinism as an example when I write about this process.

However, I also recognize that however I try to mediate or qualify my statement, those who do worship Calvin’s God will hear me saying that they are not Christian. And that’s not really my intent. It’s my own personal judgment about the sort of God in which I am or am not willing to believe. In fact, if God is as I believe him to be, then I know that he is at work trying to heal and renew and restore all of us. Our image of him can certainly hinder our ability to cooperate with his efforts. And if we choose to wrap ourselves in delusion and reject healing God will not force himself upon us. God is not willing that any should perish, but he is also not a tyrant. The God we worship matters. But it doesn’t change God or in any way control his activity. I just don’t happen to believe that Calvin’s God, Brahman, or any of a host of ways of describing the ultimate reality of our universe actually exist.

The Four Gods that the authors identify are divided into four general quadrants: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. These are broad categories, but the professors found they are also predictive of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of areas. In other words, the general sort of God in which you believe shapes the way you live and act. I suppose that’s not surprising. As I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright say, “We become like what we worship.”

I wasn’t surprised that the Distant God, which is essentially the same sort of God that the Deist founders of our nation worshiped, is still widely followed. Roughly a quarter of the population, across all religions, believe in this sort of God. This is the God who starts the universe running and then mostly stays out of it.

I was, however, discouraged that so few Americans believe in a Benevolent God. Now, that does not mean that those who believe in a different sort of God don’t believe that God can be kind, merciful, and loving. They often do. It does mean, though, that they do not believe that love defines his essence. Most people do not truly believe that God is a good God who loves mankind. It’s hard to find an Orthodox prayer or liturgy that does not somewhere declare God’s goodness and love for the whole of humanity.

That does not mean that God is a God of enlightenment toleration. He’s not the good God who tolerates anyone and any behavior at a respectable distance. No, he is the God who seeks to heal us and who desires union with us. And sometimes the prescription for healing is painful. But he is the God who has suffered with us, who brings himself to us by becoming one of us in every way.

The deepest problem with Protestantism is that it makes it even easier for us to define God any way we please. If we don’t like one picture of God, we’re free to invent another. That’s always been a problem for Christianity, so the issue itself isn’t new. We have a desire to remake God in our image. But Protestantism, in which every person decides for themselves (or at least has the authority to decide for themselves) what sort of God they worship, exacerbates that tendency in us all. I think the deeper studies like this one simply reveal that underlying weakness. Yes, the majority of the people in this nation are Christian, but we can hardly claim to all worship the same God.

Lord have mercy.


Praying with the Church 11 – Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today

Posted: August 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 11 – Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This is the concluding chapter of the book and in it Scot ties the threads of the book together. He begins by reminding us of the two kinds of prayer: “personal, privation devotion — praying in the church; and public, communal worship — praying with the church.” The focus of this book has been the latter. So how do we, as individuals in our own contexts, adopt this practice? Scot offers some suggestions.

First, we need to have realistic expectations. It’s unlikely that any of us can thoroughly revamp the order of our lives instantly and dive into an observance of all the offices of the Liturgy of the Hours on day one. If you have a personality at all like mine, it can certainly be a temptation to try. I took his warning here to heart. It spoke right to me. That’s why I’ve moved slowly and thoroughly examined each practice I have adopted or modified. And I’m in no rush to add more. First I feel a need to allow the ones I have so far attempted to speak into and reshape my life to the extent they will. And then move to the next. The goal, after all, is not to achieve some herculean pinnacle of effort, but rather to change ourselves into people of prayer, which I take to mean people shaped and ordered by the rhythms of the sacred.

However, this is balanced by its counterpoint. We have to try. If we attempt nothing, we will not progress at all. Whatever approach we choose, we must try something or we will stay where we are today. I suppose if you’re completely satisfied with your present prayer life, that would be OK. I guess. I do wonder, though, if Jesus would expect us to follow him in some sort of sacred rhythm of prayer as well as our own private prayers of intercession, devotion, and simple relationship. This is, after all, the way he lived and the way he taught. Who understands us better? It’s the same sort of reaction I have to those who speak dismissively or negatively about liturgy. The only example we have in scripture of an order of worship given directly by God is deeply liturgical and symbolic. Might that be because God knows us better than we know ourselves? And in truth, every worship I’ve seen falls into liturgical patterns even if the word is avoided. How much uproar was there in our church when we moved the offering to the end of the service? That was a change in our liturgy. I think we are too dismissive of these sort of things. And we are dismissive because our view of the nature of people is not correct. But that could be just me.

Scot’s third point is that we must have space for silence. While the prayers can be said anywhere, we should establish a place that can become our sacred space of solitude and silence and prayer. I’m reminded here of the Celtic Christian tradition of “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is worn thin. By returning to a single place, it becomes a place where the presence of the invisible and spiritual can be sensed. As in Psalm 131, it becomes a place where we can truly quiet our soul. And we must become quiet. For prayer is not just about speaking. It is about being open and sensitive to God as well.

For his fourth point, Scot recommends variety and flexibility. I tend to think is a concession to the sort of people we have been shaped to be by our present American culture. However, it’s a concession that in no way bothers me. Sometimes we just have to recognize who we are, and most of us are people who will turn from a discipline of prayer and damage our prayer lives if we find it dull and inflexible. I strove to follow the “Baptist” ideal of quiet time and prayer for several years. (I tend not to expect instant results, so give such things time.) And it started fine, but fairly quickly became oppressive in its strictures and stayed that way however I tried to vary it. Such has not happened at all with those disciplines I have so far adopted in this tradition, even though on the surface they might appear dull and repetitious. Instead they are shaping my life in ways that was not true of the more intellectual and less ordered Baptist discipline. Perhaps this is a distinction between those still shaped by the Enlightenment forces of the last couple of hundred of years and those of us less shaped by them? I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible.

I like Scot’s rule: “Avoid making rules about prayer.”

His fifth observation is that we need depth and breadth. Take a deep bath in a prayer book or a specific tradition. Give it three months to a year. This one is second nature to me. I forgot it was even in here. Further, I thirst for breadth of understanding. Scot points out what I have found to be true. No practice or discipline yields instant results. But over the course of months or years an effective discipline will anchor itself in the very fabric of our being.

The sixth observation is that we need to know what to say first, words of adoration and dedication. And that is how all the prayer books open each time of prayer.

Seventh, we need to use the Psalter. Of course, all prayer books use it, so if we use a prayer book, we will use the Psalter. Even without a specific prayer book, we must bathe ourselves in the Psalms. Billy Graham did, reading all the Psalms every month. And if we don’t read all the offices of the prayer book, we may want to add to what we do incorporate the rest of the Psalms.

Eighth, we need to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Creed every day. This is also a great place to begin. Other than the Jesus Prayer, this is the part I have already begun. It’s not enough to have their words stored in our memory. We need to say them out loud to make them a part of our being, part of who we are.

Ninth, we need hymns and readings. The Church has loved to sing and the Church has produced great writings through the ages, wisdom from which we can benefit. Both practices are important to maintain.

And so Scot closes with an invitation for us all to join with the Church in the basilica in prayer, adoration, and reverence of our Lord.


Praying with the Church 10 – How the Divine Hours Prays with the Church

Posted: August 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 10 – How the Divine Hours Prays with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

Scot next explores a modern prayer book called the Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. Here is the online site: http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/

Scot opens with the most common complaint about prayer books, “that one has to have five or six ribbons, a couple of bookmarks, and an accurate memory to become comfortable with A Manual for Eastern Orthodox Prayers and The Liturgy of the Hours and The Book of Common Prayer.” Another complaint is that many “genuinely want to pray with the Church and don’t want to have to pray with only one branch of the Church.” The Divine Hours addresses both of those complaints. It puts everything on one page (or at least in sequence) and includes prayers and writings from all the traditions.

Each “divine hour” takes about 5-10 minutes and includes the following:

The Call to Prayer
The Request for Presence
The Greeting
The Refrain
A Reading
The Refrain
The Morning/Midday/Vespers Psalm
The Refrain
The Cry of the Church
The Lord’s Prayer
The Prayer Appointed for the Week
The Concluding Prayers of the Church

Compline includes some readings from spiritual classics.

The purpose of set prayers is not to receive some ecstatic blessing. The purpose is to provide a sacred rhythm that centers our lives, orders our day, enlarges our hearts, reminds us of old truths, and provides us with words to express both what we feel and think as well as what is appropriate at this time of the year in the Church calendar.

The Divine Hours are comprehensive, not complete. And they are selective. They are designed to be affordable and accessible to those unused to a prayer book tradition. And according to Scot, they excel at that goal.


Praying with the Church 9 – How the Anglicans Pray with the Church

Posted: August 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 9 – How the Anglicans Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

Once again, at least one online example of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is here: http://vidicon.dandello.net/bocp/index.htm

The origin of the Book of Common Prayer dates back to the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. We have to remember that Bibles were rare and expensive through much of history. People gathered to hear it read because that was the only way they could. Cranmer’s goal was to so institutionalize the practice of reading Scripture that the entire Bible would be heard each year. Each day the church bells would ring (morning and evening) and the locals would gather at the service, where they would begin to learn the Bible. That is what lies at the heart of the BCP. Cranmer provided a book that provided daily written prayers and daily readings from Scripture. The BCP has been revised a number of times over the centuries, but that has remained its core. Like the Liturgy of the Hours, the BCP also, when used properly, will have its adherent recite the whole Psalter every month.

Scot also notes, amusingly, how bound up we get in our traditions. Y’all know what “Amen” means, right? It’s the transliteration of an Aramaic word that means, “I agree”. It was a word for public, not private, prayers. Originally, the person praying in public would not say “Amen”. (Surely a person agrees with their own words.) Instead, those listening would say Amen to verbalize their agreement with the prayer. Praying with the Church in written prayers, “Amen” or “I agree” is especially appropriate if used thoughtfully. We are challenged by the prayers of others and challenged to stand with the Church in our agreement with them. That can take courage and require that we set some of our own prejudices aside.

Another contribution in the West by the BCP is its focus on morning and evening prayers. The full Liturgy of the Hours is difficult, as we already explored, to fit into the life of the lay person. Condensing it to morning and evening made the BCP more accessible while still covering much that the Hours covered. It is not as rigorous, but it is still a good rhythm and one modeled on the most basic use of the Shema (though perhaps not intentionally).


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.


Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 21 – Psalm 50:7 (or 51:5)

The next text St. Augustine used, and one which you will hear widely quoted as a text defending the idea of original sin as inherited guilt is Psalm 50:7 (LXX) or 51:5 (Hebrew Masoretic numbering). I’ll start by providing an English translation of each, beginning with the Septuagint rendering (OSB).

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, And in sins my mother bore me.

And here’s the Hebrew Masoretic translation (NKJV).

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

It is difficult to discuss this verse divorced from the context of the entire Psalm and the way it has been used for centuries by the Church. Even today in the Orthodox Church, the entire Psalm is used in the services of Orthros, the Third Hour, and Compline. It is also recited in every Divine Liturgy by the priest as he censes before the Great Entrance. This is the great penitential Psalm and has been so used by the Church for as long as we have any records. I think it is best approached as a whole text in that light and with that attitude.

However, the natural reading of the single verse above does not communicate to me any idea that David is saying that he was conceived and born with some sort of inherited guilt. Rather he is lamenting the damaged and broken state of humanity into which we are all born. Those who conceive and bear us do so within the brokenness of their own transgressions and sins — their own mortality. Who among us would deny that reality? It’s also possible that in his song of repentance, David is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not necessary to assume that’s the case. It’s perhaps a bit clearer in the translation from the LXX, but David is obviously not referring to his own sin in that verse. He’s referring to that of those surrounding him from the moment of his conception. He is making reference to the brokenness which forms and shapes us all.

The verse just doesn’t say what St. Augustine and others who try to use it the same way want it to say. It doesn’t communicate that idea when you lift it out of its context and that is certainly not the message of Psalm 50 (or 51 in the Hebrew numbering) when taken as a whole.


For the Life of the World 39

Posted: February 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 39

This post focuses on sections 7-10 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Section 7 focuses of the essay focuses on the way that causality and guarantees were built into the theology of sacraments and how they were thus transformed from intrinsic and revealing in their union with Christ to extrinsic and formal. They began to shift toward individual acts of piety and sanctification rather than “catholic acts of the Church fulfilling herself.” It’s a pretty dense section, but I think I get his point. We turned what was intended to sustain our life in communion into separate acts over which we could exercise control.

Fr. Schmemann then returns to the “Orthodox perspective” and asks how a rediscovery of sacraments can occur. And in this context he makes an interesting point about something I have seen people do.

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice. For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers. The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed. It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view.

A proper reading requires a recovery of the ancient Christian understanding of “symbol” and Fr. Schmemann suggests a starting point is with the Symbol of symbols himself, Jesus of Nazareth. When one sees Him, they “see” the Father, has the communion of the Holy Spirit, and has already eternal life.

It is at this point, in this agonizing “focus” of the actual Christian situation, that the preceding analysis acquires, we hope, its true significance. For it shows that if Christianity fails to fulfill its symbolic function — to be that “unitive principle” — it is because “symbol” was broken, at first, by Christians themselves. As a result of this breakdown Christianity has come to look today, in the eyes of the world at least, like, on the one hand, a mere intellectual doctrine which moreover “cracks” under the pressure of an entirely different intellectual context, or, on the other hand, a mere religious institution which also “cracks” under the pressure of its own institutionalism. … For the whole point is that holy is not and can never be a mere adjective, a definition sufficient to guarantee the divine authority and origin of anything. If it defines anything it is from the inside, not outside. It reveals and manifests, vide Rudolf Otto, the “mysterium tremendum,” i.e., an inherent power which in a doctrine transcends its intellectualism and in an institution its institutionalism. It is this “holy” — the power of an epiphany — that is hopelessly missing today in both doctrine and institution, and this, not because of human sins and limitations, but precisely because of a deliberate choice: the rejection and the dissolution of symbol as the fundamental structure of Christian “doctrine” and Christian “institution”.

And so Fr. Schmemann asks where and how the rediscovery of symbol itself can be achieved.

The answer of Orthodox theology once it recovers from its “Western captivity” ought to be: in the unbroken liturgical life of the Church, in that sacramental tradition which in the East, at least, has not been significantly altered by the wanderings of an alienated theology. We have pointed out already that the fatal error of post-patristic rationalism was the isolation of the sacrament from the liturgy as total expression of the Church’s life and faith. It meant, in fact, the isolation of the sacrament from the symbol, i.e., from that connection and communication with the whole of reality which are fulfilled in the sacrament.

His conclusion to the essay and thus to the whole book is quite a sentence. It reminds me of trying to read Paul, actually.

In concluding, we can only say that if such a task were undertaken, it would show that the proper function of the “leitourgia” has always been to bring together, within one symbol, the three levels of the Christian faith and life: the Church, the world, and the Kingdom; that the Church herself is thus the sacrament in which the broken, yet still “symbolical,” life of “this world” is brought, in Christ and by Christ, into the dimension of the Kingdom of God, becoming itself the sacrament of the “world to come,” or that which God has from all eternity prepared for those who  love Him, and where all that which is human can be transfigured by grace so that all things may be consummated in God; that finally it is here and only here — in the “mysterion” of God’s presence and action — that the Church always becomes that which she is: the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the unique Symbol “bringing together” — by bringing to God the world for the life of which He gave His Son.

It’s a small book, but one densely packed with deep thoughts. I’ve enjoyed working my way through it.