Is Hell Real? And Reading the Real Bible

Posted: July 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Is Hell Real? And Reading the Real Bible

Fr. Stephen has posted two excellent posts. The first poses the question, “Is Hell Real?” I’ve made some effort to address that question in my own series on the topic which you can find in the sidebar under Hell. But Fr. Stephen drives right to the heart of the matter. And then he posted a longer commentary on the flat, literalistic reading of the Bible today and what we mean when we call something real. I strongly urge anyone who reads my blog to read those two posts if you haven’t already read them.


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.

Peace.


Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.


Mary 18 – Purification of the Blessed Virgin (Candlemas)

Posted: February 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 18 – Purification of the Blessed Virgin (Candlemas)

Meeting of the Lord in the Temple

 

Since this is a series on Mary, I selected one of the traditional Western designations for this feast. It’s also known as the Presentation of Christ at the Temple and in Orthodoxy it’s one of the twelve Great Feast of the liturgical year. Both names are technically correct. The events of the feast are described in Luke 2:22-40. After giving birth to a male child, under Mosaic the mother was considered ritually unclean for seven days and was then to “remain in the blood of her purification” for thirty-three days. Once the forty days had passed, the parents were to appear in the Temple with the child, make the required offering to redeem the child from the Temple, and the mother would receive prayers from the priest and be cleansed.

Mary followed the law and along with Joseph presented Jesus and herself at the Temple forty days after his birth. Jesus was redeemed with two turtle doves, suggesting Joseph was not wealthy, or perhaps indicating that Mary was one of the righteous poor. Simeon the Just and Anna the Prophetess encountered Christ during his presentation.

Orthodox Christians still practice a Christianized variation of the forty day period. The mother and child remain home and away from Church (and generally going out as little as possible) for forty days following the birth. After that period, the mother and child are “Churched.” These are the Greek Orthodox prayers for the Churching of a mother and child after forty days.

It’s also the Feast on which candles which will be used in worship for the rest of the year are blessed. So in the West it also became known as Candlemas.


Mary 10 – Nativity of the Theotokos

Posted: January 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 10 – Nativity of the Theotokos

Next in the series, I plan to write briefly about the major feasts of Mary in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Many of the main ones are common to both traditions (which is hardly surprising since they were mostly one tradition for a thousand years). The Roman Catholic Church today has many more Marian feasts than Orthodoxy. I’m not familiar with all the Roman Catholic feasts, so I won’t even try to write about each and every one, but I will try to cover the major ones.

This feast is the first major feast of the traditional Church year on September 8th on both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendar. (I won’t discuss differences between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars in this series.)  In the Catholic Church, this feast is called the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The feast celebrates the birth of Mary to her aged and previously barren parents, Joachim and Anna.

Here’s a short Orthodox hymn for this feast.

Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from You, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.

And a recording of the above troparion as well as some other hymns for this feast.


A Christian Nation?

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments » http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XddLDufkaig

 

 

 

Especially on the “conservative” side, it’s common to hear people claim our country was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn’t, of course. Nor was it founded as an atheistic nation, like the Communist regimes of the 20th century. Our founders were trying to establish the world’s first secular nation and I think, for good or ill, they largely succeeded. Certainly our culture is deeply and thoroughly secular. But that’s a different discussion from the one I want to focus on here.

The video above shows the building and opening of a Rebirth of Orthodoxy exhibit in Moscow. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a section where an icon is brought in for veneration. The long lines and devotion impressed me, as it has in other videos of Russian devotion I’ve seen. Russia suffered under an atheistic regime that actively tried to stamp out Orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. Virtually nobody still alive in that country can remember a time before Communism. And yet they held onto their faith. Culturally, they remained a truly Christian nation, and when the boot of the oppressor was removed, that deep faith almost immediately began blossoming again.

It’s hard for us to imagine a country, like Russia, which has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, or one like Greece, which has been a Christian nation for even longer. As a nation, we’re still in the early portion of our third century. And our cultural memory tends to be short, anyway. Certainly as far as our privileged majority goes, we tend to dismiss slavery, our genocide of Native Americans, and even the more recent Jim Crow era as “ancient history.” Very often, even if not explicitly expressed, the attitude is that those peoples who have suffered should just “get over it.”

Some form of Christian faith has, collectively, always been the majority religion in our country. But I don’t think that alone is enough to make us a Christian nation. I watch the Russians and I can’t help but think of our own country. While the majority of us can collectively be described as individually Christian, it’s a fractured and divisive Christianity. We have no culturally cohesive and unified Christian identity. If we had suffered under a repressive and often brutal atheistic regime for a century, would we have retained any meaningful Christian identity? Maybe in pockets here and there, but across our country?

I’m skeptical. I don’t see here the same sort of deeply rooted faith we are seeing in Russia. And our cultural memories are short. We are pretty much repeating today the same mistakes we made in the late 19th and early 20th century and most people seem completely oblivious to that fact. Even our cultural memory of the era of segregation, which a lot of people still alive can remember, is fading.

Compared to Russia and other truly Christian nations, in what sense, then, can we call ourselves a Christian nation?


Heterodox?

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

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

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

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

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

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

But on what basis?

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

Or is that just me?

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

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


The Jesus Prayer 9 – A Darkened Nous

Posted: March 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 9 – A Darkened Nous

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

While the nous is our “little radio,” our faculty for hearing and encountering God, it doesn’t much want to listen to God. Our nous is often described as damaged or darkened.  Our nous craves stimulation constantly. Our thoughts constantly leap from one topic to another, rarely settling down.

A contemporary elder said that the nous is like a dog that wants to run around all the time.

Does that describe your mind? It certainly describes mine. Our nous needs to be healed for us to clearly perceive and understand reality. And, as Khouria Frederica puts it, reality is God’s home address.

The Jesus Prayer functions, in part, by “opening a little space between you and your automatic thoughts, so that you can scrutinize them before you let them in.”

This healing is a lifelong process, and your self-serving thoughts, in particular, are adept at disguising themselves; they may escape detection for many long years. But over time you will discover that some very old automatic thoughts are just plain wrong, and you don’t have to think them anymore. As the nous is gradually healed, its perceptions become more accurate, less agitated. You begin to acquire “the nous of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous,” said St. Paul (Rom. 12:2).

The Jesus Prayer will send you into the “jungle of your own psyche.” I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a pretty frightening place. Jesus is both the compass and the goal of that journey. This is one of the reasons Orthodoxy places so much emphasis on having a spiritual father or mother. You need someone who can guide you and wrap you in their own ardent prayers.


The Jesus Prayer 6 – Miracles

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 6 – Miracles

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

Khouria Frederica mentions something I believe it’s important to expand. Experiences which we call miracles remain common within the Orthodox world. However, I think miracles in a Christian sense are deeply misunderstood in the modern West. At least, they are understood differently than they are in the East. Much of that difference stems from different perceptions of reality.

A great deal of Western Christianity today views God as somehow removed from creation. God may not be placed far away where the Deists placed him, but there is a sense of separation. Operating from within that mindset, a miracle is typically perceived as God intervening or contravening the natural order.

That is not the case within Eastern Christianity. God is perceived as everywhere present and filling all things. In him we live and move and have our being. He is also seen as in some sense restoring creation and in another sense having already restored creation in Christ. (It’s spoken of in both senses. Some of that expresses the way the reality of God transcends our concept and experience of time.) A miracle, then, is not God contravening the “natural” order of creation. In some cases, like the burning bush and the Transfiguration (and any other experience of the uncreated light), it’s God helping us to see the true nature of reality. In other cases, it’s a restoration of the true nature and function of our humanity. (Within Orthodoxy, Jesus’ ability to command the storm is seen as much an expression of his true humanity as it is of his divinity — though you will find it discussed both ways.) In some instances, it’s an eschatological  revelation of the fulfillment of all things achieved in Christ.

Of course, in Orthodoxy there is also a deep awareness that there are forces intent on deceiving us. Not every “miraculous” occurrence is of God. Not every “angel” is truly an angel of light. Indeed that is a favored deception! Not every “spirit” is the Holy Spirit. I’m reminded of a story of an Orthodox bishop who, for whatever reason, was invited to a modern charismatic meeting. It was one of those in which the Spirit (supposedly) descended and created spontaneous outbursts of “holy barking.” The hierarch immediately said, “That’s not the Holy Spirit. That’s the spirit of Anubis.” I think he was right, though I never would have phrased it that way before I heard the story.

We have lost much of our ability to discern reality in the West. The discipline of the Jesus Prayer, if practiced with a true heart, can help us learn to have eyes to see and ears to hear. I truly believe that or I would not heed it at all, much less discuss or attempt to practice it. We do not want to open ourselves to any spirit or any experience. Although I have practiced such disciplines in the past (as a non-Christian), I now see my former actions as foolhardy. By the grace of God I was relatively unscathed, but many are not so fortunate. No, we wish to experience and encounter only the Holy Spirit. We need to be careful to practice disciplines better focused toward that end. The Jesus Prayer has centuries of use supporting it. That’s not true of many modern Christian practices.