The Monstrous Within Us All

Posted: February 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

As I’m sure most people are now aware, this past week an Austin resident snapped and flew his small plane into one of our IRS offices. Due to a well-designed building, some fast thinking and good reactions from those in the building, small acts of heroism, and a healthy helping of good fortune, it appears that only one person died in the attack. While I did not personally know Vern Hunter or his wife Valerie, I’m still discovering those within the web of my friends and acquaintances who did know Vern. The IRS is a large employer in Austin, but I suppose you can’t work for them for a quarter of a century without developing connections that leave you one or two degrees of separation from many of the other employees. My thoughts and prayers have been and remain with the Hunters.

Nobody I personally know was injured or killed in this attack. As such, I would not describe my reaction to it as grief. Nevertheless, as my coworkers and I (and our immediate families) fielded calls and texts all day Thursday from friends and loved ones across the country checking on our well-being, I experienced a sense of … unreality. I suppose that sort of reaction is a natural insulating effect of mild shock. This particular attack hit uncomfortably close to “home,” to the immediate environment over which we all of like to feel some degree of control. It drove home how little we are able to truly control.

Of course, we all immediately wish to demonize people like Joe Stack. We want to strip them of their humanity and turn them into monsters. We want to turn them into the “other”, distance them from ourselves, and make them into objects of scorn and hatred. The message of that hatred is, in part, that “we” (our network of family and friends — our tribe, if you will) are not like that monster. We could never act in such a way.

It is, of course, true that most of us will never act as Joe Stack did. But that is not quite the same thing. And though we wish to deny it, we do share in Joseph Stack’s basic humanity. It’s in that shared human nature, which those of us who are Christian would call an icon of the Creator, that we have the capacity for acts of incredible goodness and heroism. But it is also in that same damaged nature that we all have a capacity for the monstrous. It is perhaps only when we acknowledge that fact that we find the ability to love those who make themselves into monsters. The reaction of the Amish when their children were gunned down is the example of humanizing love that comes to my mind. Of course, I am a Christian. And I would say that ultimately our capacity to love flows from the one who is Love. But that does not diminish the synergy of our participation in that love or the dissonance when we refuse to participate.

I’ve been following the reports of neighbors, acquaintances, and family of Joe Stack. They all describe a man not unlike us all. He was a man who loved and was loved. It’s become clear that he was more tormented by his demons than those around him realized, but they were pretty ordinary demons. There was nothing that stood out about Joe Stack, that marked him as anyone unusual, until that moment when he chose to act.

I was heartbroken by the comments of his daughter, who lives in Norway. They spoke often. She loved him and had no sense that anything was wrong. Her children, his grandchildren, loved him. At one point, she says, “Maybe if I’d lived in the states… a little closer to him… I don’t know.” My heart ached for her as I read that statement. There is, of course, no answer to that question. But who among us has not been tormented by the question: What if? It’s a cruel question and yet one we cannot seem to avoid.

The reality is that people are not monsters; they are not demons. Human beings perform monstrous acts; they try to dehumanize themselves. That is absolutely true. But at one point in their lives, they were that helpless infant, that small and hopeful child, a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a parent — a person with dreams not unlike the rest of us. Almost everyone has loved and been loved. Even the “monsters” leave behind people who love them, confused and heartbroken. Even the most monstrous cannot escape their basic humanity.

And when we recognize that fact, we are forced to acknowledge that the capacity for the monstrous exists within us all. As a Christian, I turn to Jesus and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” for I do not know what else to do. He is the only human being who, fully sharing our nature, defeated the monstrous within it. If we cannot find our true humanity, a humanity worth embracing, in Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t know where else to turn. I’ve explored so many other paths and found nothing like the promise Jesus offers. But sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s real, especially when forced to face the monstrous.

My heart also breaks for the family and friends of Joe Stack. I can’t imagine their pain and heartbreak. And so I pray for them. But I also pray that God has mercy on Joseph Stack III. After all, he was a human being, created as an eikon of God. If I deny that fact, if I let myself turn him into a monster, then I am denying my own humanity and life itself, at least as I understand it to be hid with Christ in God.

Lord have mercy.


For the Life of the World 23

Posted: January 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 23

The series now moves to section 2 of the fifth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter five.

Perhaps the Orthodox vision of this sacrament will be better understood if we begin not with matrimony as such, and not with an abstract “theology of love,” but with the one who has always stood at the very heart of the Church’s life as the purest expression of human love and response to God — Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It is significant that whereas in the West Mary is primarily the Virgin, a being almost totally different from us in her absolute and celestial purity and freedom from all carnal pollution, in the East she is always referred to and glorified as Theotokos, the Mother of God, and virtually all icons depict her with the Child in her arms. … In her, says an Orthodox hymn, “all creation rejoices.”

It’s really not as much a leap to look to Mary to understand Christian marriage as it initially appears. To understand Christian marriage, we must understand what it means to truly love as a human being. And it’s hard to find a greater example of the fulfillment of that love than Mary. This was not some meek, mild woman as she is sometimes depicted. Nevertheless, the same woman who sang what we call the Magnificat, also said to God, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

Not having been raised and formed within the protestant camp, I don’t have the aversion toward honoring and venerating Mary for her amazing participation with God that seems so common and widespread. I recognize that some of that aversion springs from Roman Catholic excesses that sometimes look the way Fr. Schmemann describes above. However, the West is not quite that homogeneous. Yes, there is an emphasis on Virgin, sometimes more than God-Bearer, but there is also healthy devotion to Mary and people who draw great strength and comfort from her as Mother and as the one who said yes to God more than as some unreal Virgin. I can think of a number of such people just from my personal network of relationships.

But what is this joy about? Why, in her own words, shall “all generations call me blessed”? Because in her love and obedience, in her faith and humility, she accepted to be what from all eternity all creation was meant and created to be: the temple of the Holy Spirit, the humanity of God. She accepted to give her body and blood — that is, her whole life — to be the body and blood of the Son of God, to be mother in the fullest and deepest sense of this world, giving her life to the Other and fulfilling her life in Him. She accepted the only true nature of each creature and all creation: to place the meaning, and, therefore, the fulfillment of her life in God.

I have the sense that many of my fellow evangelicals reduce Mary to little more than a vessel, one of many that could have “done the job” of giving birth to Jesus. When you ascribe no particular importance to Mary herself, when you fail to honor her “yes” where we had all said “no”, when we fail, as she herself proclaimed under the power of the Holy Spirit, to call her blessed, we come at least close to engaging ancient heresies that denied the full humanity of Christ. While the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, the Word of God, uncreated, true God from true God, has always existed in his divine nature, his human nature, his humanity, the essential mystery of the Incarnation, comes from Mary.

Mary said yes.

And that is love. A love for God that overflows into a love for all humanity, a willingness to face the unknown and the terrifying, a willingness to be what we never imagined we could be. There is no evidence that just any human vessel would have sufficed. Had Mary said no, I’m not sure God would have simply moved on to the next person. I see no evidence in our lives that God operates with a plan B. Oh, he does not abandon us. Often, it seems like he is saying, “Well, this is not what I wanted for you, but since this is where you’ve gotten yourself, here’s what we have to do to begin to get out of it again.” I don’t believe that God would have given up on us had Mary said no. Love, after all, never fails. But I do not believe that it would have been a simple matter of shopping around for another willing vessel. I do believe creation would have gotten darker. And I cannot imagine God’s next move.

Of course, imagination does not help us and can hinder. ‘Might have beens’ mean little. But I do not think we can emphasize enough the importance of Mary’s faithfulness and love. When we fail to honor and venerate her faithfulness, when we fail to call her blessed as she prophesied all generations would do, we diminish the glory of the Incarnation and we minimize its importance. When we do that, we not only step close to ancient heresies, we darken the image of true love.

This response is total obedience in love; not obedience and love, but the wholeness of the one as the totality of the other. Obedience, taken in itself, is not a “virtue”; it is blind submission and there is no light in blindness. Only love for God, the absolute object of all love, frees obedience from blindness and makes it the joyful acceptance of that alone which is worthy of being accepted. But love without obedience to God is “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16), it is the love claimed by Don Juan, which ultimately destroys him. Only obedience to God, the only Lord of Creation, gives love its true direction, makes it fully love.

When you truly love God, you desire good for others and not evil, for that is the reality of our God. I would also say that any love which selflessly desires and acts for the good of the other is rooted in the love that is our God, whether the person who loves realizes it or not. But all other sorts of “love,” if pursued to their end, will destroy the beloved, yourself, or both. This is not some sort of division between agape as a “good” love and eros as a “bad” love and phileo as an in-between “so-so” love, a caricature I have often seen in evangelical circles. I think the approach Pope Benedict XVI took in his encyclical is the better one. All love can be rooted in God and directed first toward God. All love is meant to be “good” love.

True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.  … This is why the whole creation, the whole Church — and not only women — find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience — only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation — do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.” For man can be truly man — that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative — only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself — in obedience and love — to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7).

Read that enough times for it to begin to sink in. It’s so much deeper and richer than the shallow theology of “gender roles” that dominates conservative evangelical life and thought and which I tend to find repellent and, for lack of a better word, icky. I judge it damaging to both men and women.

The above places all of creation, including mankind, in our proper place of acceptance and response to God. It’s why the Church saw Mary as the new Eve. She was faithful and accepted what God asked of her. She aligned her will with God in obedience. It was not a blind obedience. She asked questions. But she chose to trust God and acted accordingly. As Christ recapitulated the life of all mankind as the true and faithful adam or man, so Mary recapitulated eve, the living one, restoring the proper acceptance and response of the whole living creation to its Creator.

Mary is the Virgin. But this virginity is not a negation, not a mere absence; it is the fullness and the wholeness of love itself. It is the totality of her self-giving to God, and thus the very expression, the very quality of her love. For love is the thirst and hunger for wholeness, totality, fulfillment — for virginity, in the ultimate meaning of this word. At the end the Church will be presented to Christ as a “chaste virgin” (Cor. 11:2). For virginity is the goal of all genuine love — not as absence of “sex,” but as its complete fulfillment in love; of this fulfillment in “this world” sex is the paradoxical, the tragic affirmation and denial.

To be honest, I’m not sure I understand the last sentence above. But I include it because I think I want to understand it. It strikes me that, in an evangelical context we tend to treat chastity as a negation, as a list of things you can’t do. (And note that Christian marriage is simply another form of chasteness.) We do not treat it as “the fullness and the wholeness of love itself.” Perhaps that’s one reason we don’t actually behave as a group any differently in this area than those who are not Christian. It’s something to consider at least.

Mary is the Mother. Motherhood is the fulfillment of womanhood because it is the fulfillment of love as obedience and response. It is by giving herself that love gives life, becomes the source of life. One does not love in order to have children. Love needs no justification; it is not because it gives life that love is good: it is because it is good that it gives life. The joyful mystery of Mary’s motherhood is thus not opposed to the mystery of her virginity. It is the same mystery. She is not mother “in spite” of her virginity. She reveals the fullness of motherhood because her virginity is the fullness of love.

On one level I intuitively grasp the above. But I’m not sure I can turn that understanding to words that expand in any way on what Fr. Schmemann has written. So I won’t try. But do read and meditate on it a few times.

She is the Mother of Christ. She is the fullness of love accepting the coming of God to us — giving life to Him, who is the Life of the world. And the whole creation rejoices in her, because it recognizes through her that the end and fulfillment of all life, of all love is to accept Christ, to give Him life in ourselves. And there should be no fear that this joy about Mary takes anything from Christ, diminishes in any way the glory due to Him and Him alone. For what we find in her and what constitutes the joy of the Church is precisely the fullness of our adoration of Christ, of acceptance and love for Him.

Truthfully, if you are not overwhelmed with awe and amazement at what Mary did, at the reality of her bearing, giving birth, and raising he who was and is true God from true God, then you have not truly considered it. Such a response is the only possible one if you truly acknowledge Jesus as the uncreated Son of God.

In the next section, Fr. Schmemann returns from this exploration of love through Mary to the discussion of the sacrament of matrimony.


My Church History Perspective 3 – So what’s up with all the fighting over a book?

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I must confess that I’ve had a hard time determining which thread of my interactions with the Church and its history to tackle first. However, given the sort of Christianity within which I found myself, the first thread of strangeness I encountered had to do with the Bible, so I suppose it makes the most sense to start there. It has always been an area of strangeness for me, and it still holds surprises for me.

I landed in a part of the Christian spectrum that speaks often about the “inerrancy” or “infallibility” of the Holy Scriptures. Now, I’ll be honest and confess that even after fifteen years, I’m unsure exactly what people mean when they use those terms. Further, it strikes me that different groups and even different individuals often mean different things by those words. Sometimes the differences are minor, but other times they seem quite large to me.

I’ve never been able to grasp how the concept of “infallibility” can even apply to a text. Structures and powers can fail you. People can fail you. Faith and spirituality and religion can fail you. You can even fail yourself. But a text is just a text. It remains what it is. I suppose it’s true to say that it won’t “fail” or cease to be what it is. But I’ve never seen any great merit or virtue in that attribute. It is, after all, true of all texts.

In the same way, I’ve never grasped the point of trying to use the category of “error” with a spiritual writing of any sort. Error is the sort of category that best fits the sensible realm within which the scientific method operates. It’s the realm in which you can devise empirical (or as close to empirical as we can ever get) tests to show that an idea either corresponds to the nature of the physical realm or it does not. But I don’t see any way to apply that category to any spiritual writing. After all, they all purport to describe those aspects of reality that transcend the sensible and material portion we can directly test. So I have always tended to assume that any spiritual writing, allowing for the differences introduced by changing cultures and the supreme difficulty of translation, accurately portrays the perspective of reality as it intended to portray it and is thus “without error.

Yes, I would say that’s true of Christian scripture. But I would also say that is true about the Qur’an. I would say it’s true of the many different sutras within Buddhism. I would say it’s true of the Vedas. The question does not ever seem to me to be whether or not any of these texts contain “errors.” The question is which of the many very different perspectives accurately describes the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being? And that question far transcends the category of error.

Some would say these are really an expression of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura. I suppose in some sense they are a natural extension of that idea within the context of growing individualism that marked much of the modern history of Western Europe and the United States. It is not, however, what the Reformers themselves meant by the term. I actually had relatively little difficulty discerning and understanding what they meant. They were basically using the phrase or idea as a way to assert their own right to interpret Scripture over and against the interpretation of the Roman Catholic magisterium of their day. It’s obvious from their subsequent actions as they joined with the political powers of their respective states that they never intended that anyone and everyone was free to interpret Scripture as they saw fit. No, variant interpretations were as brutally repressed and opposed within the Reformation as within the Catholic states. The fury of war that swept Europe as a result left a solution born more of fatigue than any resolution of the question. It was decided that the people of any given state would be a part of the particular sect that held sway in that state and on that basis the constant wars would cease. And many of the states further resolved the problems with their internal religious dissidents by shipping them off to the “New World.” It’s little wonder we’re such a divisive and fractious lot here in the United States when it comes to faith.

No text, of course, has any “objective” meaning apart from interpretation. And the more that interpretation is divorced from the culture and language within which a text was written, the more subjective any independent or individual interpretation of the text will be. That is, for example, why the Qur’an cannot be translated. It is only the Qur’an in its original language. Any translation is instead a commentary on the Qur’an.

But Christianity has never been a religion based on a sacred text. We are not “People of the Book.” No, we claim to be the people of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Living Lord. We are the people, the ecclesia, the Church of those who are in living communion with him and with each other. We are the ones who know, acknowledge and proclaim him Lord. This is why Christians from the earliest days of our faith have held that the truth about Jesus could be proclaimed in any and every language and remain Truth. This is a part of the message of Pentecost. Christian texts could therefore be translated into other languages and still, within the context of the interpretation and proclamation of the Church, remain Holy Scripture. The translation was seen to be as holy as the original, not merely a commentary on the original sacred text.

Now that is not to say that the Holy Scriptures are somehow unimportant. No, they are vitally important and are easily the greatest part of our Christian tradition. But they are only useful to the extent that they are read in light of Christ. They have no independent or separate usefulness or validity. They have no life of their own and they can give no life. Our life is hid with Christ in God as the Holy Scriptures themselves attest.

The Holy Scriptures are not somehow magically self-interpreting in a way that no other text can be. They were produced within the context of the tradition of the Church. They were canonized within that same tradition. And they have no valid interpretation apart from the history of the interpretation of the Church. Since Christianity is firmly centered around the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical reality, indeed the very center of all historical time, and the community he formed, our Holy Scriptures have no independent or separate meaning or holiness.

Indeed, history works against such views of the Christian Scriptures. All of Christianity eventually settled on one canon for the New Testament and all traditions continue to use that canon. However, the Church selected those texts rather than others because they felt they were directly connected to an apostolic author and because these were the texts that were “read in Church” widely, and not in a specific geographic area alone. However, the various traditions today do not use the same Old Testament canon. And the Old Testament canon used by Protestants has the least historical credibility.

The Reformers selected the Jewish Masoretic canon for their Old Testament. However, the process that eventually produced that canon within rabbinical Judaism did not even begin until the latter part of the second century. When you see Justin Martyr, for example, accusing the Jews of altering the text of prophecies to reduce their connection to and fulfillment in Jesus, he is talking about those who were beginning the work that produced the Masoretic canon. Now, I have no idea how much merit those accusations had, but it does illustrate part of the problem with the Reformers’ decision.

What text did the early Church use? What text did the Gospels, Paul, and the other NT authors call “the scriptures”? Easy. The same text that was read in most of the first century synagogues, and virtually every synagogue outside the environs of Jerusalem in Judea — the Greek Septuagint. (Oddly, although the Reformers adopted the Masoretic text for their Old Testament canon, they used the Septuagint titles for those books.) That’s especially true once the Church began including gentiles. The only text the gentile converts could have read or heard and understood was the Septuagint. From what I can tell, the Reformers in part wanted to choose a different canon because they did not like what some of those books said. And, in part, it was simply a mistake. They correctly chose to look back to the Greek New Testament text to correct some errors in late medieval interpretations of the Latin Vulgate. They seem to have thought the Hebrew Masoretic text was the “original” of the Latin Vulgate Old Testament. It mostly wasn’t.

In the light of that history, the modern ideas about Scripture make even less sense. The Old Testament canon Protestants are using is not the same canon the Gospel authors, Paul, and others were calling “the Scriptures” when the texts of the New Testament canon were written. It’s not hugely different, of course, but there are still some significant differences.

In Christianity, unlike some religions, the text is a product of the faith. The faith is not a product of the text. The faith is a product of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I think some Christians today have that backwards.


Thanksgiving – Eucharistic Man

Posted: November 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Thanksgiving – Eucharistic Man

I’ve been pondering what to write for Thanksgiving this year. I considered the usual list one often sees, but in truth such a list would have little on it beyond my family and other relationships. At the end of the day, it’s people who matter to me. As I’ve been reading (and blogging) Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, I’ve been struck by his image of man created to be eucharistic, that is offering thanksgiving for and on behalf of creation to God. It seems to me a better thing to celebrate than either our history of broken promises and conquest over the native peoples of this continent or our bloody civil war in which neither party to the conflict had a moral high ground.

Of course, as we reflect on man as eucharistic, we realize that none of us truly thank God with our being. None of us, that is, save one, the faithful man, the true Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. He is our Eucharist for he restores to mankind our true vocation. In and through Jesus the Christ, we can participate in the life of God, offering true thanksgiving for all creation.

And yet — even now we too often don’t. We become paralyzed by fear. We do not see God everywhere present and filling all thanks. We do believe that reality is as Jesus describes it. Ultimately, we do not truly believe that God is unfailingly good, that he loves mankind, that he loves us and will use all that we experience for our salvation. From the moment I read it, I understood what Paul meant when he wrote, “For we know that all things work together for the good for those who love God…” I understood the story of Joseph. What his brothers meant to be evil, God turned to great good.

I’m drawn to Jesus because I want to believe that God is good. But it can be a hard thing to believe, deep down in your bones where it really counts. Evil may be an ephemeral shadow next to the light of God, but it seems strong and powerful, very real and frightening. We learn early on that the world is a dangerous place and so we do not see reality through the lens that Jesus offers.

What would it mean if those of us who call ourselves Christians determined to become eucharistic in communion with Christ?

I wonder.

Perhaps instead of the usual lists, I would offer thanks for having celiac, trusting that the good God would use it for my salvation? I would look at the evil I’ve experienced or which members of my family have experienced and see the good God has already brought out of that evil and offer those experiences as my eucharist?

Perhaps. But if so, I’m not there yet. I want to believe that God is good, but that is easier said than done.


On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

In this section, Athanasius continues to refute pagan perspectives. His comment against the sophists is probably difficult to understand without some understanding of their development in ancient and classical Greece. This history is interesting if you want to look it up, but by Athanasius’ time sophists were regarded as teachers of rhetoric rather than actual wisdom. As such, when Athanasius compares the common language with which the Word taught and communicated to us and which his followers largely used to the sophists, he is comparing it to their eloquence and rhetorical ability. And he says the Logos overshadows them all. It’s an interesting way to formulate the idea and I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

However, I want to focus on this excerpt.

Or who else has given men such assurance of immortality, as has the Cross of Christ, and the Resurrection of His Body? For although the Greeks have told all manner of false tales, yet they were not able to feign a Resurrection of their idols,—for it never crossed their mind, whether it be at all possible for the body again to exist after death. And here one would most especially accept their testimony, inasmuch as by this opinion they have exposed the weakness of their own idolatry, while leaving the possibility open to Christ, so that hence also He might be made known among all as Son of God.

This emphasizes a point the N.T. Wright makes in his big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which a lot of modern people overlook. And it’s this one. Everyone in the ancient world knew what resurrection meant. It meant new bodies after death, a new embodied life of the same person. But other than some of the Jews, no group actually believed that resurrection was possible. The tale of Orpheus is as close as you come in the pagan Greek mythos and the point of the narrative is that resurrection can’t happen.  This was actually one of the problems in the Corinthian Church that Paul was trying to address. They had accepted that Jesus, as the Son of God, had somehow been resurrected, but they didn’t believe that as a result we would be resurrected. A lot of people use Paul’s words today to emphasize the importance of the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and that’s not a bad usage. But Paul was actually taking their acceptance of that truth as a given and from it arguing that we would all one day be resurrected.

Without the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no Christianity and there is no point to our faith. But if he did not defeat death for all humanity in his death, if we also do not rise, then again there is no point in being Christian.


For the Life of the World 13

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 1-2 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

As we leave the church after the Sunday Eucharist we enter again into time, and time, therefore, is the first “object” of our Christian faith and action. For it is indeed the icon of our fundamental reality, of the optimism as well as of the pessimism of our life, of life as life and of life as death. Through time on the one hand we experience life as a possibility, growth, fulfillment, as a movement toward a future. Through time, on the other hand, all future is dissolved in death and annihilation.

Fr. Schmemann dives right into the existential crisis of time in his opening to this chapter. Time is not some uniquely Christian problem or paradox. Philosophers of all stripes have tried their hand at it. However, I like the way he puts Christianity’s response to the conundrum of time.

Here again what the Church offers is not a “solution” of a philosophical problem, but a gift. And it becomes solution only as it is accepted as freely and joyfully as it is given. Or, it may be, the joy of that gift makes both the problem and the solution unnecessary, irrelevant.

We cannot accept that gift if we turn Christianity into a religion (in the pejorative sense that Fr. Schmemann uses the word) that saves us from time rather than within time.

Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which is “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded. They left time meaningless indeed, although full of Christian “symbols.” And today they themselves do not know what to do with these symbols. For it is impossible to “put Christ back into Christmas” if He has not redeemed — that is, made meaningful — time itself.

I didn’t remember that last line above when I wrote my first post. I think his sentence definitely sums it up quite well. Christ entered into all creation in the Incarnation and that definitely included time. In the Resurrection he has made creation new. The Resurrection itself happened within time, as I’ve already mentioned, on the first day that is also the eighth day of creation.

And thus our question is: did Christ, the Son of God, rise from the dead on the first day of the week, did He send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, did He, in other words, enter time only that we may “symbolize” it in fine celebrations which, although connected with the days and the hours, have no power to give time a real meaning, to transform and redeem it?

N.T. Wright points out that in every description of the eschaton which we have there are still sequences of events. There are still ongoing activities. In other words, though time (which is fundamentally the ordering of events) is assuredly made as new as everything else in creation, it doesn’t simply go away. Yes, we will be partakers in the very life of God through theosis, but the leaves of the tree are still for the healing of the nations. The Christian eschaton seems to be many things, but it is not boring or somehow timeless. Why do we seek to make it so?


On the Incarnation of the Word 48 – The True Son of God

Posted: October 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 48 – The True Son of God

Athanasius continues his argument against the Greek pagans, and it’s worth reading the entire section. There are certainly parts of it that echo strongly in today’s environment. But I want to focus on one thought.

Then, if the Saviour is neither a man simply, nor a magician, nor some demon, but has by His own Godhead brought to nought and cast into the shade both the doctrine found in the poets and the delusion of the demons and the wisdom of the Gentiles, it must be plain and will be owned by all, that this is the true Son of God, even the Word and Wisdom and Power of the Father from the beginning.

Jesus didn’t simply best individuals. He brought all the powers to nothing. The Son is the eternal Word and was from the beginning. The Son is begotten, but always uncreated and true God.


On the Incarnation of the Word 30 – Christ Is Himself The Life

Posted: September 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 30 – Christ Is Himself The Life

Athanasius next emphasizes the power of the Resurrection.

For now that the Saviour works so great things among men, and day by day is invisibly persuading so great a multitude from every side, both from them that dwell in Greece and in foreign lands, to come over to His faith, and all to obey His teaching, will any one still hold his mind in doubt whether a Resurrection has been accomplished by the Saviour, and whether Christ is alive, or rather is Himself the Life?

Jesus is not merely alive. He is Life. And this is seen in his power to change men and exert authority over all creation.

Or how, if he is no longer active (for this is proper to one dead), does he stay from their activity those who are active and alive, so that the adulterer no longer commits adultery, and the murderer murders no more, nor is the inflicter of wrong any longer grasping, and the profane is henceforth religious? Or how, if He be not risen but is dead, does He drive away, and pursue, and cast down those false gods said by the unbelievers to be alive, and the demons they worship? For where Christ is named, and His faith, there all idolatry is deposed and all imposture of evil spirits is exposed, and any spirit is unable to endure even the name, nay even on barely hearing it flies and disappears. But this work is not that of one dead, but of one that lives–and especially of God. In particular, it would be ridiculous to say that while the spirits cast out by Him and the idols brought to nought are alive, He who chases them away, and by His power prevents their even appearing, yea, and is being confessed by them all to be Son of God, is dead.


On the Incarnation of the Word 26 – Raised in Three Days

Posted: September 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 26 – Raised in Three Days

Athanasius next explores why the Resurrection was on the third day. He points out that if Jesus had more quickly risen, people may very well have questioned whether he had really died or not. Similarly, if he had stayed in the grave too long, people might have questioned if it was really the same body, the same person. He ends with this vibrant declaration.

but while the word was still echoing in their ears and their eyes were still expectant and their mind in suspense, and while those who had slain Him were still living on earth, and were on the spot and could witness to the death of the Lord’s body, the Son of God Himself, after an interval of three days, shewed His body, once dead, immortal and incorruptible; and it was made manifest to all that it was not from any natural weakness of the Word that dwelt in it that the body had died, but in order that in it death might be done away by the power of the Saviour.

The Word died not from any weakness, but rather so death might be done away with in his body.


On the Incarnation of the Word 19 – Creation Confessed Him Lord At His Death

Posted: September 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 19 – Creation Confessed Him Lord At His Death

In this section of his treatise, Athanasius begins to focus on the death of Christ on the cross.

For He made even the creation break silence: in that even at His death, marvellous to relate, or rather at His actual trophy over death–the Cross I mean–all creation was confessing that He that was made manifest and suffered in the body was not man merely, but the Son of God and Saviour of all. For the sun hid His face, and the earth quaked and the mountains were rent: all men were awed. Now these things shewed that Christ on the Cross was God, while all creation was His slave, and was witnessing by its fear to its Master’s presence.

I sometimes have the sense that we have narrowed our lens to the point that we talk about little beside the relationship between the individual and Jesus. Yet the Word is the creator and sustainer of all that is. If God relates to all creation, how could creation not respond to the Incarnation?