Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.


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.

The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

Posted: June 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts.

This line has always confused me since it’s dropped in the middle of the section on the way of life and does not seem to relate to either what came before or what follows. It just sits there. What does it mean? There is a translation of the Didache which may offer some insight on this line.

Refrain from the impulses of your selfish nature and the self-serving world.

But while I think there is some aspect of that involved, judging by the unity in the various other translations, I think that one misses the earthiness of the actual language. It does not seem to be as neat or sanitary as the above translation makes it seem.

Here celiac, since it is primarily a fast, helps me understand this a little better, I think. In order to follow the way of life with celiac, I must curb my impulses and desire to eat or drink gluten. If I am to remain in the way of life, I must abstain. It makes little difference what other good or positive or helpful things I do. If I do not abstain from gluten, they are all for naught.

Perhaps there is something of this dynamic in the way of Jesus? There are things from which we must learn to abstain, desires we must quench, or it will spill into all the other areas of our lives? Is this a parallel to the Orthodox perspective on the passions? If we allow them to rule us rather than learning to rule them, we cannot progress in theosis?

Perhaps so. Or perhaps I’m on the wrong track. Nevertheless, the line in its context is an odd one.

Beyond Justification 2 – What does it mean to be human?

Posted: May 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The article that spurred this series, Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective, immediately caught my attention in its opening paragraph with the sentence:

Orthodox in general have never quite understood what all the fuss was about to begin with.

That precisely captures my state of confusion ever since my conversion to Christianity. It has seemed like the foremost question that most have had has been something along the lines of: Am I (or insert person of concern) in with God or am I out? The entire thing seems to revolve around the question of what happens to you when you die. Some might think that’s an overstatement or caricature, but the Southern Baptist Convention’s primary “evangelistic” program is predicated entirely on that idea. Hardly anyone on the ‘inside’ even seems to find it bizarre. Given that my pre-conversion belief about the afterlife tended toward a belief in the transmigration of souls (reincarnation), concern about some “christian” idea of heaven and hell had absolutely nothing to do with my ultimate conversion to the Christian faith. So I never understood the huge fuss over any of the various ideas about what Paul meant by the term “righteousness” or “justification” (same Greek word, I gather).

To the Orthodox, the Western Church’s convulsions over the nature of justification, and particularly the relationship between faith and works, are largely incomprehensible because the presuppositions underlying the debates are often alien to the Eastern Christian mind. The Christian East espouses a different theological anthropology from most of Western Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – especially with respect to two elements of fallen human nature: original guilt and free will. The differences in these two anthropological concepts, in turn, contribute to differing soteriological understandings of, respectively, how Jesus Christ saves us (that is, what salvation means) and how we appropriate the salvation offered in Christ.

The article above starts in the right place. The Latin and later Western Church’s obsession with justification does seem to flow from its idea of inherited guilt, which was probably drawn from its early neo-platonic influences along with a mistranslation of the Greek text into Latin. I suppose if you believe you were born ‘guilty’ and powerless to do anything at all about it, you might be concerned with exactly how you get to be ‘not guilty’. Even though I did not realize for more than a decade that my belief was the normative Eastern Christian belief, I never for one moment accepted the idea that guilt could somehow be inherited unless one also accepted the idea of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true then I could accept that a soul’s accumulated karma stays with it. But that is not the Christian story. Our soul in Christian parlance consists of our body and our spirit together and intertwined. There is no such thing as the eternality of the soul. We are created beings and did not exist before we were created. Our being is tied to these bodies. We have no natural existence separated from our body. And within that framework, only a capricious God would create a human being guilty.

I’m not entirely sure why it was that pretty much from the time of my conversion onward, I developed something more akin to what the article calls “the Eastern Christian mind” rather than the Western one. Other than my patristic readings, all things Christian which I encountered directly were distinctly Western. I do, for instance, deeply appreciate the way St. John Chrysostom describes baptism, but his teaching conflicts with almost all things Western..

Although many men think that the only gift [baptism] confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places of the Spirit.

Of course, modern Baptists (and really virtually all evangelicals) don’t believe that baptism actually confers anything whatsoever. I am probably foolish and even a fool in many ways, but that always seemed like a particularly foolish belief to me. Zwingli strongly influences much of the branch of Christianity that tends to call itself evangelical today even if they don’t even realize that’s who they follow. But I always understood that the things we do with our bodies and in the physical or material realm matter spiritually even when I wasn’t Christian. If anything, Christianity has deepened and strengthened that understanding. Zwingli believed what he did at least in part because he did not believe the material creation could house things of spiritual value. In his eyes the bread and wine could be nothing more. Water was just water. This belief approaches in some ways a denial of the Incarnation. It is certainly a denial that God is everywhere present and filling all things and that he can and does particularly infuse the material creation at times for our spiritual benefit and healing.

In addition to and connected with the idea of inherited guilt, the West simultaneously developed the idea that we had lost the ability to freely choose God. Even in the Roman Catholic understanding, Lutheran understanding, or Arminian Reformed understanding, which allow for and even require some activity of our will, our will is only able to choose God because of this odd thing often called prevenient grace. Those who lean more toward Calvin on the Reformed side tend to deny the existence of any will on our part at all. Whatever free will humans may have been created with was obliterated in the Fall. I know that Protestants don’t tend to actually study the ecumenical councils of the first millenium, but such statements are actually a denial of the sixth council. Since that has long been one of the councils that has meant the most to me, I appreciate the way the article brings that out. I will also point out that I’ve always understood grace as it’s described on the Christian text as describing the action of God. To say that we receive grace is to say that we receive God.

Thus, Orthodoxy understands human sin primarily not as deliberate and willful opposition to God, but rather as an inability to know ourselves and God clearly. It is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard his voice in another direction and kept moving away from him, either directly or obliquely. It is illuminating that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”. Despite our orientation toward God, we “miss the mark” because, not only does the clouded spiritual vision of our fallen condition make it difficult for us to see God clearly, but we fail to understand even ourselves truly; thus, we constantly do things which make us feel only incompletely and unsatisfactorily good or happy because we don’t recognize that God is himself the fulfillment of our innate desire and natural movement.

That is not to say that people cannot come to set their will in direct opposition to God. They can and sometimes do. But that is not the primary manifestation of sin. That certainly better captures both my personal experience in my lengthy journey to Christianity and what I perceive with many of the people around me.

So we are guilty only for what we have personally done and it is an integral part of the image we bear that we have the will to choose what we do and what we worship. Our will has been damaged and is too often subject to our passions just as the image we bear is tarnished. But it is that damaged will which Christ assumed in order to redeem it in the same way that he assumed our mortal nature in order to free us from death. It seems to me that if you get these wrong, you badly miss the mark about what it means to be human.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my reflections on this article.