The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

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

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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

Khouria Frederica then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

Posted: February 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

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 discusses another term, hesychia, anyone who explores Orthodoxy or the Jesus Prayer will encounter. It’s an important concept to understand.

In biblical Greek this word means “silence,” “quiet,” “stillness,” or “rest.” It is not an empty silence, but one marked by respect and awe. I think of Job, who said, when confronted by God’s majesty and power, “I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).

St. Gregory of Palamas wrote that in that stillness, we can directly encounter God and we can perceive reality as it is — suffused with God. The Transfiguration of Christ illustrates this truth. Although we call it a “transfiguration,” Christian understanding has always been that what the disciples saw was the reality of Christ. Jesus never broke communion with the Father and the Spirit, so he lived constantly in their presence and light. Most of the time nobody could see that reality. The light of God is not part of creation. Whatever it might be, it’s not photons. And we are told in multiple places that those energies of God suffuse and sustain all that is. Most of the time, we do not have eyes to see.

To the limited extent I understand it, hesychasm seeks to quiet the nous so that we can experience God in our innermost being. When we do, through God’s grace, it can be possible to acquire the Spirit in such a way that we do have eyes to see the reality of creation.

I’ve never experienced that myself. I feel it’s important to stress again that there’s nothing special about me and I’m still not very good at all at the practice of any aspect of Christian faith. But I do believe it’s true. This marks the key difference I found between Hinduism and Christianity very early on. Both teach and speak of a God in whom we live and move and have our being, but Brahman and Christ are not the same. Ultimately, Brahman is other and unknowable, while Christ, even as he transcends our knowledge, makes himself immediately and personally known.


Thirsting for God 14 – The Eucharist

Posted: January 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

I have 29 posts in my Eucharist category, so this is not an unfamiliar topic for me. I have too much of an interest in history and a penchant for tracing beliefs, so it didn’t take me long to turn up the inconsistencies in many Protestant views on the Eucharist, particularly the essentially Zwinglian teaching with which Matthew was most familiar.

The Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist can be expressed in relatively few words. Matthew uses good ones.

By an unfathomable act of God, the Eucharist is bread and wine, and at the same time it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Eucharist is one of the great and central Mysteries of the Church. And it is truly mysterion and beyond rational explanation. From the earliest days of Christianity, it has been the central rite of our worship. In fact, from the earliest times we see those who denied the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of our Lord not among the Churches, but among the heretics. The docetists and the gnostics are first and second century examples, but the thread continues. In fact, it’s not until Zwingli in the 16th century that we see groups even vaguely within the context of mainstream, creedal Christianity who claim that the bread and wine merely represent Christ or are a memorial to him. The central puzzle to me is not why Zwingli invented his particular teachings. With the turning of modernism, Zwingli and his teachings fit like a glove. It’s just odd to me that so few check their history today when it is widely available and easy to access.

Matthew covers the basics well in this chapter, even though most of what he covers was old hat to me long before I even noticed modern Orthodoxy. There is, however, one line that really stood out to me in this chapter.

Jesus understands that we all need Him — not just a memory of Him.

That’s really the crux of the matter. A mere memorial is both pointless and useless. It’s little wonder so many Zwinglian Protestants celebrate the “Lord’s Supper” no more than quarterly. Really, what’s the point in having their version of it more often?


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.


Thirsting for God 1 – Matthew Gallatin

Posted: November 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 1 – Matthew Gallatin

I plan to spend several posts reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. Before I began working through the book itself, I wanted to write a bit about the author and the reasons I decided to read his book. I encountered Matthew Gallatin through his Ancient Faith Radio podcast, Pilgrims for Paradise. I’ve listened to his podcast from the start and I’ve listened to many of them more than once. I did not, however, immediately buy his book. I recognized that it was primarily aimed at a different sort of audience than me.

Thirsting for God captures Matthew Gallatin’s personal journey through different Christian traditions and eventually into Orthodoxy, however it is framed as something of an apologetic for Orthodoxy aimed at Protestants, and the particular objections that most modern Protestants would raise. While I ended up Protestant, that’s mostly accidental rather than deliberate and I’ve never really embraced everything it means to be Protestant. I’ve sometimes jokingly referred to myself as the Accidental Christian and Reluctant Baptist (or vice versa).

The fundamental story of Protestantism (and this is true across all the tens of thousands of strands) is that at some point in its history the Church wandered from its true course as established by the apostles and lost its way. Each of the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations and non-denominations thus believe they are living and acting as the Church ought. Now, that particular description is most often used for those strands that are labeled Restorationist. However, the Restorationists simply push the time of apostasy all the way back to at or near the first century. They are the most extreme. However, every Protestant strand has begun because somebody at some point said the Church is off-track. Here’s how it “ought” to be done.

I never found that story compelling. Yes, the Church is composed of broken and sinful people, but it is not merely those people or we have nothing to say to the world around us. Moreover, if you really look at the historical settings and claims most of them aren’t very credible. Even the ones that arose in response to some real problems, like Luther, didn’t actually reconnect to anything historical in the Church. In a number of fundamental ways, he essentially reinvented a Christianity that did not exist before him. In fact, the origin of just about every distinctly Protestant belief can be traced to a particular person at a particular time over the last five hundred years or so. And I have too much of a historical bent not to notice that fact.

Matthew Gallatin became aware of Christ’s presence from a young age as a dirt-poor Appalachian farm boy. As he grew older, he began a love affair with theology and at the age of thirteen he and his parents became convinced that Seventh-Day Adventism held the truth of Christian doctrine and practice. He eventually went to an Adventist college where in depth study began to deconstruct his belief in Adventism. His turning point, in some ways like that of Frederica Mathewes-Green, came from a voice welling up inside him. Frederica Mathewes-Green was told that Jesus was her life and that those other things — they were not her life. (I can strongly empathize with her story.) Matthew Gallatin’s question was different. Do you know what you believe? Is what you believe the truth? I can empathize with that as well.

His first move over the course of five years was from Seventh-Day Adventism to Protestant “fundamentalism” and their commitment to the Bible “as it reads.” But, as we know, those strands of Protestantism are filled with their own divisions and thousands of different “simple” readings of the Bible. And in the midst of that he wondered where to find love, a question which led him to the charismatics — among whom he eventually became a pastor. Matthew has an interesting line at this point I want to share. “Sometimes I think I might still be a charismatic, were it not for the fact that I was also a pastor.”

It was at that point that the journey that would eventually end up in Orthodoxy began.


An Orthodox Mind?

Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was reading (or actually re-reading, since I’ve written a past series based on it) an article this morning that prompted a variety of thoughts. As a result, I believe this post will be a more meandering one than I usually write as I wander down different corridors in my mind. The article is Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective by Valerie A. Karras. The article has something of an academic flavor to it, but I found it both interesting and easy to read. If you find anything I’ve excerpted from it today interesting, you may want to go read the entire article. The statement that caught my eye this morning and has been bouncing around my head lies in the following from the introduction of the article.

The absence in Eastern Christianity of a soteriology in terms of forensic justification is serious because Orthodoxy believes not only in ecumenism across geographical space, but especially “ecumenism in time”, i.e., the need to be consistent with the theological tradition of the Church from the earliest centuries. Thus, the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.  Sola scriptura means little to the Orthodox, who as opposed to placing Scripture over the Church, have a full sense of Scripture’s crucial but interrelated place within the Church’s continuing life:  the apostolic church communities which produced many of the books of the New Testament, the communities of the catholic Church which over a period of centuries determined which books circulating through various communities truly encapsulated the elements of the apostolic faith; the dogmas and Creed declared by the whole Church in response to the frequent controversies over the nature of the Trinity and of the theanthropos Jesus Christ, controversies which frequently arose precisely from dueling perspectives of which biblical texts were normative and of how those texts should be interpreted.

This of course does not mean that the Orthodox do not believe that each generation of Christians may receive new insights into Scripture, especially insights relevant in a given cultural context.  However, it does mean that the new insights must remain consistent with earlier ones, and that one or two Pauline passages (and one specific interpretation of those passages) are not considered theologically normative – particularly as a foundation for a soteriological dogma – unless the early and continuing tradition of the Church show them consistently to have been viewed as such.

Here is the specific phrase I want to highlight: the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church. I don’t think there’s any sense in which I can be said to have been formed with any sort of traditional Orthodox mind. Nevertheless, this expresses precisely something close to the core of the difficulty I have experienced over the past fifteen years or so as something like an American Protestant (or Evangelical) Christian. I’ve never tried to participate in any sort of religion without digging deeply into it. And I’ve always been very interested in history. In Christianity, those two coincide in ways that go beyond what you find in most religions. At the core of our faith lies a man who lived, taught, died, and was resurrected in a particular place, at a particular time, within the context of a particular clash of cultures. From that flows a community unlike any other ancient community — one that draws from all peoples and acts in love toward all, crossing cultural, ethnic, and class barriers — who says they live and act the way they do because this one man is their source and is actively leading them to act as true human beings. They essentially claim in some sense to be forming the true, renewed humanity from all the nations and that this true humanity is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a startling claim and it had a radical impact across the ancient world.

This connection makes Christianity more deeply and intimately connected to its entire body of historical practice leading back to Jesus of Nazareth and the apostolic witness, to the historical church which carried that witness, than is true of many religions. Since I became Christian, it has always been a problem to me when I could trace the origin of a belief or practice which contradicted previous belief or practice to a specific person or group. For instance, the practice of using unfermented grape juice in communion can easily be traced to the late nineteenth century and completely contradicts the universal prior Christian practice. The belief that communion is merely a memorial and is symbolic (using symbol in a modern sense to mean something that is not real and merely represents that which is real) can be traced to Zwingli in the sixteenth century and contradicts all earlier Christian belief and practice. The practice of “four bare walls and a pulpit” not only contradicts the universal practice of ancient Christianity, it directly contradicts the seventh ecumenical council.

Those are just three simple illustrations, but when I’ve pointed these and others out to my fellow Christians, the dissonance has not usually bothered them at all. And I’ve always had a very difficult time understanding that perspective. A phrase I’ve often heard goes something like this, “Well, I believe the bible says…” That’s always seemed like a very odd thing to say to me. The Holy Scriptures of Christianity are a rich, deep, and complex collection of texts. I could believe they say almost anything I wanted them to say. And I’m more than intelligent enough to find a basis in “the bible” for almost any interpretation I desired to make. So what? If my interpretation has no basis in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic witness, and the belief and practice of the church, then it’s merely another way to construct my own little god, my own religion, and ultimately it can never be any larger than my own limitations. I’ve traveled that road (though in non-Christian contexts) and I’m very familiar with where it ultimately leads. I have no desire to return to that place and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t need to coat it with a Christian veneer.

It is not possible to read or study any single human being and find an expression of the Christian faith that is without any error. We are all human. We are all limited. We all make mistakes at times. (Oddly, it tends to be Protestants — who tend to claim some sort of “soul competency” for believers to separately and individually interpret scripture — who tend to root beliefs and entire belief systems in the interpretations of individual Christians. Think about it. You’ll quickly see what I mean.) However, if the ecumenical witness of the ancient church failed to preserve the apostolic witness — a deeply historical witness, then it’s gone and there’s no way to recover it. If that’s true then we have no idea who God is or how to be Christian. I find no credibility in the restorationist narrative which postulates that the church apostasized in the first century and we have only recently recovered the true Christian faith.

So it seems that while I’ve never been Orthodox, I entered Christianity with a mindset remarkably similar to that of Orthodox Christians. That likely explains why I believed so many things that the Orthodox believed long before I was consciously aware of modern Orthodoxy. I drew from the same sources. (It doesn’t explain why the Jesus Prayer came to me. I had never read any of the works or discussions of the Jesus Prayer beforehand.) Within that context, new insights and understandings are fine. We should build on the work of those who came before us in the faith. And as Christianity interacts with new cultures, new and beautiful facets will be revealed. God cannot be compassed, so there is always something new to say about him. But God is also not inconsistent. So anything new that is revealed must be consistent with Christianity not just across place, but across time or it should be almost automatically suspect.

That’s the main point that was bouncing around my head, but as I re-read the article, it seemed worthwhile to me to highlight some additional thoughts in it.

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.  Explaining Maximos’ theology, Andrew Louth offers, “… with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfilment.” Ultimately, it is not our natural human will that is deficient, but rather how we perceive it and the way, or mode, by which we express it; as Louth sourly opines, “it is a frustrating and confusing business.”

The image of hearing God in a storm, but not being able to tell the direction is a compelling one to me. We all not only interpret texts and experiences in order to understand them, we are constantly reinterpreting our past experience in the light of our present understanding and position in life. From where I now stand, I can see so much of my first thirty years of life as attempts to follow a voice with almost no sense of the direction from which it came. I was never one who simply didn’t care about the deeper questions of life. I was always pursuing something, following some path, seeking something. Even as a Christian, it’s often been a journey of steps in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. Every human being is created in the image of God and thus has within themselves the capacity to turn their will toward God. But that image is tarnished and cloudy. We see through a glass darkly, as though lost in fog, or from the midst of a sandstorm. It is truly “a frustrating and confusing business.”

The question is whether Luther’s soteriology – and, for that matter, other forms of Western atonement soteriology – are truly based on the christology of the early Fathers, especially those behind the dogmatic formulations of the ecumenical councils.  Both the dogmatic definitions and the supplementary patristic writings surrounding the christological controversies seem to indicate a negative answer to the question.  Far from emphasizing atonement as satisfaction or a forensic notion of justification, these writings express an understanding of human salvation rooted not simply in a particular activity of Jesus Christ, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.  Gregory of Nyssa, writing more than a millennium before the development of the Lutheran doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” in the context of the controversy over the extreme form of Arianism known as Eunomianism, rejects the notion that one could be “totally righteous” in a legal but not existential sense.  Human beings are not restored to communion with God through an act of spiritual prestidigitation where God looks and thinks he sees humanity, but in fact is really seeing his Son. Justification must be as organic and existential as sin is:

I always found the idea that somehow you could be “righteous” in a legal or forensic sense without ever actually being righteous (whatever you might take that to be) a very strange idea indeed. My first concern as I stepped deeper toward Christian faith was to try to understand this Jesus of Nazareth. As I began to understand and then began to know Jesus (though sometimes it felt like I was rediscovering an old and intimate acquaintance), I began to wonder more how to be Christian, how to follow him, how to participate in his life, how to become more truly human. The idea that when God looks at me he somehow sees Jesus instead always struck me not only as a bizarre, but as a deeply undesirable and even repellent idea. I was moving down this Christian path in order to hide or be hidden from God. I wanted to know him and that always meant he had to truly know me. We all want to be known. And it’s a tragedy of our existence that we often are not known, even by those who are closest to us, because we are trapped in fear. Most of that fear lies in the idea that if we are truly know we will be rejected. It seems to me that in this perspective of God, people have simply transferred that fear to God. But the truth of Christianity is that God already knows us. We can’t find him in the storm, but he sees us clearly and fully. And he loves us. He loves us so much that he joined his nature to our fallen nature, the Word became flesh, became sarx, became all that we are, so that we could have true communion with God.

Lucian Turcescu has rightly criticized Orthodoxy for focusing so strongly on theosis that it has tended to ignore the “justification” side of the coin.  However, I disagree with him that, simply because Jewish notions of justification had forensic significance, therefore Paul, or the early church, understood the term in the same legalistic way (in fact, Paul’s point in Romans is precisely to rid Jewish Christians of their forensic understanding of justification rooted in the Levitical law).  Orthodoxy may emphasize theosis (correlated to “sanctification” in the Lutheran model) and see one continuous relational process between the human person and God, but it does not ignore the distinction between justification and sanctification.  Rather, the Eastern Church recognizes two purposes to the incarnation, which may be identified with justification and sanctification:  restoring human nature to its prelapsarian state of “justification” and providing the possibility for true union with God through participation, respectively.  The former purpose was necessitated by the Fall and has been the focus of Western soteriology.  For the East the restoration of human nature to its prelapsarian potential (justification) explains why the Son of God took on humanity’s fallen human nature, i.e., why it was necessary for Christ to die and be resurrected.  Hence, Orthodoxy agrees in affirming the free nature of that restoration through grace (in fact, Orthodoxy proclaims the gratuitous nature of our justification even more strongly than most of Western Christianity since it is given to all humanity, not just the “elect” or those receiving prevenient grace). However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification.  God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins.  His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword.  The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality.  Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected.  Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality.

Jesus did not become human in order to rescue us from our fallen state. He took on our fallen nature — become mortal — and died and was resurrected in order to rescue and restore us. But with or without the fall, he had to become human in order for us to ever have true communion with God. As creatures, that’s something we could never accomplish. God had to come to us — become one with us — before we could be one with him.

And yet, salvation is an ongoing process of existential faith:  as St. Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), which the Joint Declaration cites in paragraph 12.  And so, we do indeed “work out our own salvation”.  Orthodoxy soteriology is synergistic, but not in the perceived Pelagian sense which has resulted in such a pejorative connotation to the word synergy in Protestant thought. We do cooperate, or participate, in our salvation precisely because salvation is relational – it is union with God – and relationships are not a one-way street.  As human beings created in the image of God, we respond freely to God’s love and to his restoration of our fallen human nature.  As Kallistos Ware asserts, “As a Trinity of love, God desired to share his life with created persons made in his image, who would be capable of responding to him freely and willingly in a relationship of love.  Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.”

Many of the views or perspectives of God that permeate Christianity today do not actually perceive God as a Trinity of love, even if they use the words. “Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.” That really says it all. The amazing thing in creation is that God somehow made space for that freedom. He is its sovereign Lord and sustains all of it from moment to moment. But he is love and thus begrudges none of creation its existence. (That’s why annihilationism is ultimately wrong.) And yet, even as God permeates and sustains everything, even our own bodies, he has made space for an element of uncertainty in the very fabric of creation. We have the ability to love or not to love. And the ripples of the impact of that choice echo through creation far beyond our immediate sphere of experience. When we love, we participate in the healing and renewal of creation. When we do not, we participate in the disordering and destruction of creation.


Original Sin 1 – Series Intro

Posted: February 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 1 – Series Intro

Ever since the comments on a sweet and beautiful post by Elizabeth Esther evolved the way they did, I’ve felt that I should record some of my thoughts on the doctrine typically called “Original Sin” in a series on my blog. It’s something I’ve written about and discussed in a variety of settings, but I’ve never really collected any of my thoughts here. I’ll try to rectify that in this series.

I’ve been mulling how to approach this series. I’m not particular interested in writing a structured, point by point paper or argument. While I can do that when I need to do so, it’s neither my preferred way of thinking nor my preferred mode of expression. As such, I’ve decided to write the series from the perspective of things I encountered or noticed along my own journey. That does mean that I’ll probably not cover every point that matters to any particular person, but I will touch on the ones that matter the most to me.

I will note that in the last few years I’ve discovered that my perspective on this particular issue fits comfortably within the spectrum of belief which, in the Orthodox Church, is often referred to as the “Ancestral Sin“. So if you are familiar with the nature of the differences between that perspective and the idea of “Original Sin“, you probably won’t find much that is new or interesting in my series. I’m not Orthodox and am not in any position to communicate or defend Orthodox belief, so if you expect anything along those lines, you’ll be disappointed. I’m merely pointing out the similarity for those already familiar with Orthodoxy and Orthodox belief.

I have had and continue to have family and friends within almost every flavor of modern Christianity. And I have family and friends who are not Christian at all. Though I have and will express strong personal reactions to some of the ideas that are inextricably intertwined with the doctrine of Original Sin, I do so within the context of also loving people who sometimes themselves hold a particular idea I reject or who reject a perspective of reality I hold dear. That’s never been an issue or a problem for me or for most of the people in my life. But I mention it because I have sometimes encountered an attitude that, though is rarely expressed in blunt terms, seems to boil down to the idea that you can’t love people unless you agree with their beliefs. I’ve never understood why some people seem to react that way, but it’s not the way I react. And neither do the people I know and love.

Tomorrow I’ll dive into the series itself. My plan is to keep each post in this series relatively short. We’ll see whether or not I can accomplish that goal.


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.


For the Life of the World 38

Posted: February 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 38

This post focuses on sections 4-6 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann more closely examines why the ancient Christian Fathers perceived symbol and reality so differently and it’s primarily a matter of “worldview” (to use an often overused word).  The world, created by God, is naturally “symbolical” and even “sacramental”.

If the Christian sacrament is unique, it is not in the sense of being a miraculous exception to the natural order of things created by God and “proclaiming His glory.”

And that is something that is fundamentally wrong with so many of the conversations within much of Western Christianity. “Miracles” are viewed as events or actions that contravene the natural. And in that false dichotomy we find the seed of our perception of a natural order somehow apart from God. Christ’s institution consists of filling the natural symbol with himself and making it sacrament.

Theology as proper words and knowledge about God is the result of the knowledge of God — and in Him of all reality. The “original sin” of post-patristic theology consists therefore in the reduction of the concept of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge or, in other terms, in the separation of knowledge from “mysterion.”

And that, of course, is foolish. I’m a programmer. I’m the son and nephew of scientists. I have no problem with rational or discursive knowledge. But none of that has anything to do with the way I know my wife. My knowledge of her is built on years of shared pain, struggle, and sometimes ecstasy. In many ways, she remains a mystery to me — yet I know her as I know no other. I know my children not in some rational way, but as that newborn I held, that infant whom I rocked while I sang, the young child I comforted, and through the web of life experienced together. And that, of course, is how we know God. He will always remain mystery, remain other to us as we ultimately remain to each other. And yet we know him and live within the experience of his love for us.

It must be clear by now, we hope, that the theme of “real presence” which we mentioned above and whose appearance in a way inaugurated the post-patristic period in sacramental theology was born out of theological doubt about the “reality” of symbol, i.e., its ability to contain and communicate reality.

Opposing “symbol” and “real” was simply a mistake in category, but one which has had a profound impact on humanity and on our Christian faith.