Speaking Carefully About God

Posted: March 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking Carefully About God

Last week Sarah Moon published an interesting blog post, Our Mother who art in heaven… I read the post and its comments and, as such things tend to do with me, it started percolating in the back of my head. At one point, I started to comment on the post, but then realized the things I had to say would work better as blog posts than as comments.

I want to begin by noting that I agree with the central theme — or at least what I understood to be the central theme — of Sarah’s post. There are far too many strands within Christianity that attempt to turn God not just into an exclusively male figure, but into a very narrow vision of what it means to be male. While some strands, such as that loudly (and often angrily) proclaimed by Mark Driscoll, are openly misogynistic and hateful, many are more subtle, but nonetheless deadly.

When we assign gender to God in any way we must always recognize apophatically that as much as an aspect of our experience of God might be like a certain gender, at the same time it is also not like that at all. For God transcends everything we can possibly say about him, every metaphor we could use, and every analogy we could possibly draw. God is deeply and thoroughly personal, though, not impersonal, so I think it’s even worse to use a neuter pronoun (such as it) instead. But when we use gendered pronouns to refer to God, we must always hold them loosely.

I have noted in the past, as Sarah does in her post, that our Holy Scriptures are clear that mankind is created in God’s image, both male and female. And while yes, we must say that God cannot thus be defined as some sort of super-powerful man, I think sometimes people miss what it says about humanity. Our gender is an inextricable aspect of each of us, but it does not define our humanity or our nature.

Jesus, the God-man, became fully human, taking on all that we are in order to defeat death and evil on our behalf and bind our nature to the divine nature. And while Jesus became a human man, his work was universal in nature. It is a continuing act of cosmic new creation. In and through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah, mankind — male and female — is now not only in the image of God, but shares through the Resurrection the unending nature of God and is able to participate in the divine energies of God. Jesus did not merely rescue humanity; he took us where we otherwise had no ability to go. So we all have a common nature that goes beyond gender, otherwise as a male, Jesus’ humanity could have only freed and made new the nature of human males, not the universal human nature.

I also believe it’s important that in our struggles with certain almost or even overtly misogynistic strands that we not read that struggle into places where it didn’t or doesn’t exist.  I read another post last week, On letting Junia fly, that makes that point well. It’s true that some Western Protestants attempt to deny that St. Junia was a woman and an apostle. It’s true that they can try to construct systems that cage women.

But St. Junia was never and is not now caged as a result. St. Junia does not need to be released. She does not need us to let her fly. She flew. She worked tirelessly as an apostle and accomplished much for the one she knew and called Lord and for his Church. And she has been venerated as a saint for centuries as a result. St. Junia flew. Nevertheless, as with all the apostles, her flight called her to tireless service of others for her entire life rather than personal glory or power.

So we do need to speak carefully about God in every way. I’ll explore how to speak of God in my next post.


Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 

Annunciation of the Theotokos

 

This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.

 


Mary 9 – Hail Mary

Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 9 – Hail Mary

In this post I want to look at one of the best known Marian prayers in the West, the prayer known simply as Hail Mary. It’s a prayer that’s so widely known and recognized that even those who weren’t raised Roman Catholic are often familiar with it. I learned it when I went to Catholic school for three years in Houston. It’s not a prayer I typically pray today, though when it springs to mind, I always try pause and pray it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to be one of the people to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and that prayer, rather than any distinctly Western prayer, remains at the core of my simple and poorly followed prayer rule.

But I do appreciate this prayer and the entire rosary prayer rule that often accompanies it. For those unfamiliar with the rosary, it’s a devotional crucifix with a chain of larger and smaller beads. You use the beads to count prayers and over the course of the rosary eight different prayers are typically prayed as the person praying meditates on different mysteries from the lives of Mary and Jesus. The most often recited prayer is the Hail Mary, but over the course of the rosary the Apostle’s Creed is recited as well as the Our Father, the Glory Be and others. (By contrast, the Orthodox prayer rope is usually just used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, sometimes with prostrations. And you aren’t taught to meditate on any mysteries; the ultimate goal is prayer of the heart.)

I suppose to those who had a less pluralistic formation than my own, this will sound strange. But I remember fairly often reciting the Hail Mary (mentally or verbally) during my Hindu oriented meditations. I had actually forgotten that tidbit until I was writing this post. I wouldn’t say I was praying as Christians understand prayer, but looking back it seems like I was heard anyway. I suppose that’s not surprising. If we truly believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the true and faithful man and became true humanity, joining our nature to his divine nature, then in some sense through her yes to God, Mary became the mother of humanity. And your mother always hears you, though she may not do as you intend or expect. I had never really thought in those terms before.

Anyway, the prayer itself developed in the West during the medieval period, with something at least similar to the form we have now dating back to the thirteenth century. That’s why it’s really only found in the Western Church. By that time, the rift between East and West was pretty much complete. The prayer itself is simple.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Though it’s a short prayer, it’s filled with richness. The first part of the prayer comes entirely from the Holy Scriptures. The first two lines contain the Gabriel’s initial greeting to Mary. Her state as blessed is then reinforced twice more. Elizabeth, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also calls Mary blessed among women. And then, inspired by the Holy Spirit in her Magnificat, Mary herself prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. The third line is also uttered by Elizabeth and surely it’s one we must all affirm. The fourth line of the prayer asserts a critical theological point. Mary did not simply give birth to a man who later became divinized. The baby growing in her womb was a human child, but he was also God before the ages. The prayer then closes petitioning Mary to pray for us, something she surely does anyway, but it’s still good to ask.

Truthfully, I’ve never understood why so many Protestants seem to hate this prayer. It’s mostly taken from the Scriptures which they hold in high esteem and is a rich and beautiful prayer that is easily remembered. But then, many Protestants today don’t seem to actually consider, much less call, Mary blessed. I guess we all pick and choose the Scriptures we want to honor and follow to one extent or another.

As I wrote this post, it dawned on me for the first time that I probably owe more to Mary for praying and acting in ways to bring me to her Son than I had every realized. And in my blindness, I never even said, “Thanks.”

Thank you, Mary, for loving me even as I despised Christianity and rejected your Son.


Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

Posted: January 18th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 7 – Matthew 1:25

The other common modern scriptural objection to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in Matthew 1:24-25.

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

This is actually a pretty weak objection. With ’till’ or ‘until’, sometimes the condition leading up to the event changes after the event and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s easy to illustrate with just a couple of examples, but there many examples of both usages in the New Testament.

And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. (Acts 23:12)

The above is an illustration of a usage where the condition (not eating or drinking) is expected to change after the event (killing Paul). That’s pretty obvious from the context.

For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. (1 Cor. 15:25)

I think most Christians would agree that Christ will continue to reign after all enemies are under his feet, but that’s incidental to the point being made. In this case the condition (Christ reigning) continues after the event (putting all enemies under his feet).

The whole point being made in Matthew is that Mary conceived as a virgin and gave birth to a son who was conceived by the Spirit and then immediately moves to his name, which is an important one, Jesus. Matthew is saying nothing about what happened between Mary and Joseph after the birth of Christ. All that can really be said from the context is that there is not information to conclude whether or not the condition (Joseph not knowing Mary) changed after the event (the birth of Jesus). There’s certainly nothing in the text that refutes the long-standing and ancient tradition of the Church.

And once again, it’s not as though some modern Protestants suddenly discovered a new text in Scripture that the ancient Church knew nothing about. They were certainly familiar with Matthew and were more closely connected than us to the language, culture, and customs that formed the context for the text. Why would we assume we understand the text better than they did? That attitude puzzles me.


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.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

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

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.


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 11 – Just Jesus and Me

Posted: January 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 11 – Just Jesus and Me

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

I intuitively grasp this section of Matthew’s book, but I find it hard to translate into words. Let’s start with some basic elements of our common human nature. We want to direct and control our lives and the world around us. The extent of the drive and the way in which it manifests vary hugely, but in one way or another it is common to us all. In pursuit of that goal, we often try to keep our options open and choose the path that appears most changeable, even though we’ve objectively proven that those paths and choices in reality simply produce more stress and tend to lead to undesirable outcomes. We actually function best (and tend to be happiest) when things are settled and when we know what to expect with some certainty. In our effort to shape the world around us, and in the ways we are influenced by those around us who are themselves doing the same thing, we develop particular interpretive grids. We believe that someone said something or that a particular idea can be found in a text, but it’s really our own thoughts read back into whatever we heard or read. We also lie to ourselves in a wide variety of ways. We minimize our actions while maximizing the actions of others. We project onto others. We deny a truth about ourselves that we cannot, for whatever reason, face. And in the process, we not only shape our interpretation of everything around us, we even shape and reinterpret our memories. We all do this. It’s so automatic it’s often like breathing to us. We aren’t even aware that it is happening.

Many of the “theological” thoughts I’ve posted here are ones I’ve long held. As I mentioned I turned to the early writings of the Church pretty early in my quest to understand this thing called Christianity and this God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. And those writings are permeated with many of the things I’ve shared. But five or ten years ago, I never would have expressed some of these ideas publicly because I was hard-pressed to find confirmation of them in any tradition of Christianity. I knew my own interpretations were as suspect as any other and though I thought my thoughts were confirmed in the writings of the ancient church, the truth is those cultures are as separated from me by language, time, and culture as the texts of Scripture.  I was as likely to misinterpret the Fathers as I was the Holy Scriptures. And I was just trying to understand this faith. I’ve never been the sort of person who, at least in these sorts of matters, wanted to convince people. And I was leery of even unintentionally leading people in the wrong direction.

That was the immediate source of relief and freedom I found when I first stumbled across and began exploring Orthodoxy.  A Christian tradition not only confirmed many of my thoughts and beliefs, but it could credibly trace that line of interpretation back to the very people in the ancient world I had been reading. That’s why I now feel free to share those thoughts publicly. I’m still not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone. Instead I write because it helps me work through things. I also can’t not write, whether I publish something or not. That’s always been true. So I’ve seen this blog as a good place to work through some things. If you’re reading and you disagree with something, that’s fine. I would ask that you consider why you disagree and from what source that disagreement arises. If your answer begins with either “That’s what the Bible says!” or (more honestly) “I believe that’s what the Bible says,” that’s fine. Just recognize, whether I express it or not, the question running through my head will be, “OK. Why do you believe that’s what it says?”

I say that to discuss the thought that lies at the core of this part of the book. By and large, Protestants want to determine how they worship God. It’s like trying to flip positions between the Creator and the Created. I don’t think most even realize how strange it is for the worshiper to tell the object of their worship how they are going to go about the act of worship. When you try to reduce the practice of your faith to your own preferences and make your own decisions about proper worship, when you try to make it just between you and God, it inevitably becomes just you. I’m deeply aware of the way that works. It’s a path of delusion.

Matthew tries to express that thought in a variety of ways.

You see, I at last understood that despite all the sincerity I had poured into my worship during the years I was a Protestant, God, out of His love for me, could not fully reveal Himself in the worship I offered him.

Why?

After all, God could not have been on the “throne of my life” when I was the one directing how He and I would relate to each other. When I picked the time, the place, and the method of worship, who was in charge — God or me? If God had accepted such worship, He would have been establishing me in my self-centeredness. That He would not do.

I don’t see any possible way for those in the Protestant tradition to ever be one with each other, much less one with God, as long as one of their central sacred tenets is that each individual person gets to choose how they want to worship God. But I also don’t see any way for Protestantism to ever be anything different. That’s pretty close to its core. If you look at the history of Protestantism, you see a steady and pretty much continuous progression along those lines. Protestantism today is very little like the Protestantism of five hundred or even two hundred years ago, but the continuous thread of the focus on individual interpretation and belief and even practice is pretty much continuous over these past few centuries.

Curiously, I heard a podcast recently that shed new light on that process for me. We’ve all heard the phrase, I’m sure, “outside the Church there is no salvation,” and the endless debates and discussions surrounding it. This podcast offered a perspective I had never considered, but which rings true to me, especially as it has bounced around my head a while. I’m not actually a huge fan of the Faith & Philosophy podcast, but I listen to it because it’s not long or overly frequent and there are sometimes gems like this podcast.


Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 10 – The Right Ritual

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

Love cannot exist without ritual.

Think about the above statement in the context of anyone whom you have loved. Are there not myriad little traditions and rituals that embody and sustain that love? Matthew provides an example with his wife in the book, but it shouldn’t be hard for any of us to think of our own personal illustrations. In fact, to one degree or another ritual behavior permeates all our relationships. Even at the most casual level, we shake right hands, or we bow, or we salute.

Of course, I’ve never had the strange aversion many Protestants have to ritual worship and practices. I’ve explored and practiced an array of religions and all of them provide practices that you follow both individually and corporately. As a result, the title of this chapter immediately caught my eye. It’s not about whether or not you follow certain ritual practices in worship. It’s a given that you will have some form of ritual practice. Rather, the question is whether or not you follow the right rituals.

For here’s the dirty little secret of the anti-ritualistic side of Protestantism. Every single one of them employ rituals in corporate worship and prescribe ritual practices for individual use. It’s simply an unavoidable aspect of being human. Even if you sit together in a bare room waiting for the Spirit to move someone to speak, that’s still a corporate ritual practice. A daily “quiet time” is a personal ritual practice.

And that’s natural, especially in those aspects of life that are the most important to us. It’s not something to fight against. Think about your closest relationships of love. As Matthew Gallatin puts it, what makes love real is its “predictability and constancy” not its “spikes and flutters.”

Once you recognize that truth, the real issue becomes one of discerning between the myriad ritual practices that are presented as Christian worship today. And this is where it seems natural and obvious to me to turn to history. Sure, there are things I like and things I may not like as much, but I’ve spent the past decade and a half trying to understand what it means to be Christian. Given my relativistic formation it’s a constant temptation for me to find the things I like and gravitate toward them, but I’ve been down that road. I’m not particularly interested in continuing to pursue it with a Christian veneer.

As Christians, we are not sacramental because that’s the way we like to worship. We’re sacramental because this is the path God has revealed and commanded His Church to follow.

Most of the modern Protestant practices are, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, completely anachronistic. Moreover, they not only didn’t exist in the ancient world, many of them couldn’t have existed. They simply don’t fit. They can also generally be traced to a specific origin in the last few hundred years.

Matthew Gallatin also makes the point that the diversity in ritual practice that fragments Protestantism and keeps Protestants from being truly one with each other also keeps them from attaining true union with God. And that’s an important point. We love God as much as we love the human being that we hate the most. And we can only be one with God to the extent that we are one with each other.

My SBC church has reached the point where its two styles of worship have become a point of divergence. It’s a church whose members cannot worship together. Significant numbers on both sides have made it clear they would leave before yielding even a small degree. In what sense is that Christian? Sure, it’s not hard to accommodate both groups with two different worship services, but it illustrates the lack of oneness.

(For the record, while I do have personal preferences, I don’t really have a dog in the fight. The two services look to me like slightly variant expressions of the same modern form of ritual worship. Neither of them have much thread of connection to any historical pattern of Christian worship. But the fact that many are so deeply entrenched does illustrate how important our rituals are to us.)


Thirsting for God 9 – A Living Salvation

Posted: December 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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

Real love is an act, not an idea.

The above quote is not actually highlighted in the book, but I think it elegantly captures the core theme of this section. If our salvation is a living person, we have to encounter, know, and learn to love that person.

The Orthodox Christian devotes himself to certain acts of love designed to open the heart’s door and allow him to encounter Jesus Christ as He is.

Matthew Gallatin is, of course, describing the sacramental approach to worship and life. Here is where, even after all these years, I stand as something of an outside observer to the Protestant rationalistic approach to faith. I wasn’t shaped by it. I don’t perceive reality through that lens, and it’s unlikely that I ever truly will. But I’ve been immersed in that world for a long time now. I think the following short excerpts ring true.

For instance, for a Protestant, spiritual experience is a result of spiritual understanding. Conversely, for an Orthodox Christian, spiritual understanding is a result of spiritual experience.

So for the Protestant, the purpose of the Communion experience is to demonstrate that he already understands something; but for the Orthodox Christian, understanding comes as a result of the Communion experience. This “reverse emphasis” often makes it hard for a Protestant to comprehend the sacramental way.

For the Protestant, growing in love for God requires gaining new information about Him.

Matthew Gallatin goes on to point out that many Protestants have so tied up the idea of salvation in legal terms that it becomes a thing of the past. It’s a transaction that Jesus completed and which at some point a person chooses (at least among the strands that believe human choice and will matter) to accept. But is that salvation?

To be saved, then, is to be drawn into union with God, into the life of the Divine. … Salvation is transformation.

Think of it: we are saved by loving God. As St. James reminds us, salvation in the Kingdom of Christ belongs only to “those who love Him” (James 1:12; 2:5, italics mine).

And love does not naturally grow and develop by acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is not bad. It just shouldn’t be confused with love.

Sacraments, then, are the Holy Spirit’s “Do This!” to those people who long to love God deeply. What’s more, these acts of love are not difficult to perform. So, in a wonderfully gentle, quiet, and natural way, anyone who, out of love for Christ, devotes himself to practicing the sacraments of the Orthodox Faith will find himself within the intimate, saving, transforming embrace of Jesus Christ our God.