Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 48

Posted: June 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 48

100. Time has three divisions. Faith is coextensive with all three, hope with one, and love with the remaining two. Moreover, faith and hope will last to a certain point; but love, united beyond union with Him who is more than infinite, will remain for all eternity, always increasing beyond all measure. That is why ‘the greatest of them is love’ (1 Cor. 13:13).

No, if you’re wondering, I don’t really understand this text. But I’m taken by the image of love for all eternity, increasing beyond all measure. I’m not sure what ‘united beyond union’ might be, but I sense in that the essence of theosis.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 12

Posted: February 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 12

25.  When God brought into being natures endowed with intelligence and intellect He communicated to them, in His supreme goodness, four of the divine attributes by which He sustains, protects and preserves created things. These attributes are being, eternal being, goodness and wisdom. Of the four He granted the first two, being and eternal being, to their essence, and the second two, goodness and wisdom, to their volitive faculty, so that what He is in His essence the creature may become by participation. This is why man is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26). He is made in the image of God, since his being is in the image of God’s being, and his eternal being is in the image of God’s eternal being (in the sense that, though not without origin, it is nevertheless without end). He is also made in the likeness of God, since he is good in the likeness of God’s goodness, and wise in the likeness of God’s wisdom, God being good and wise by nature, and man by grace. Every intelligent nature is in the image of God, but only the good and the wise attain His likeness.

This text is not easy to unpack. Those of us endowed by God with intelligence and intellect have in our essence both being and eternal being. Death is not a natural part of our essence. St. Maximos’ parenthetical, though, is important. There was a competing view in the ancient world, and indeed in ours as well, that viewed human beings (or more often some non-material aspect of the human) as truly eternal — without beginning or end. St. Maximos is careful to distinguish his point. Unlike God, all created beings have an origin. There was a “time” when no creature, in whole or in part, existed. But for human beings, created in the image of God, from the point of our origin onward, we are in our essence eternal beings — sharing that with God through the grace of God.

But that is only the first step. We must learn to use the attributes of goodness and wisdom, again by grace, to participate in God and with God. Through that participation, we become united with God and attain his likeness. This is the heart of love, which is also the heart of theosis. For what does it mean to be good and wise? It means to unfailingly love others and God.


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 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 1 – History, Scripture, and the Meaning of Mercy

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

It seems to me that a life of unceasing or constant prayer is very often dismissed as impossible by many Christians today. I’m not entirely sure why that’s so. For most of Christian history, the discipline of prayer has been one of the central practices of Christian faith. And it seems clear that St. Paul considered prayer extremely important. In no fewer than four places in the Holy Scriptures, he exhorts those hearing his words to pray constantly or unceasingly. If it’s captured that many times in the texts of Scripture, we can be certain it featured prominently in his oral exhortations and teachings.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Rom. 12:12)

Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance. (Eph. 6:18)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with Thanksgiving. (Col. 4:2)

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

I think, to riff off Chesterton, the discipline of constant prayer has not been attempted and found impossible or wanting by so many Christians today. Rather it has been found difficult and left untried.

And it is certainly difficult. I’m the first to confess that my rule of prayer is a poor one and even so I fail to keep it as often as I succeed. My efforts at constant prayer still produce sketchy results at best. But I do believe that St. Paul would not have kept exhorting those under his care to pray constantly if it were not humanly possible to do so.

Moreover, the practice and seriousness of the ascetic discipline of prayer colors and shapes the whole of Christian history. I first encountered the Christian discussion of unceasing prayer through Bro. Lawrence, but the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries are the ones to whom Khouria Frederica turns in this chapter. We think we need novelty in prayer lest it become stale and we become numb to it, but the following story speaks volumes about that conceit.

Abba Pambo (AD 303-75) could not read, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop and then meditated on that verse alone — for nineteen years. (Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet.)

We now live in a literate culture with easy access to almost any text we desire, including myriad translations of the texts of Scripture. Moreover, there are everywhere churches that claim to be “bible-believing.” But can we honestly say that we take the texts that seriously? What does belief mean in this context?

The particular form of the Jesus Prayer arose because so many of those who encountered Jesus in the Gospels asked for mercy. I’m not sure exactly why this prayer is the one that kept coming to me when I was searching for a breath prayer, but that likely had something to do with it. (And perhaps it’s also an example of the mercy of our Lord. He knew the prayer I needed, even if I didn’t.)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
      Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
            Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
                  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Khouria Frederica then asks a good question. What does it mean to ask for mercy? I never realized it was a good question until I read this section of her book. I had always read it the way we see it used in Scripture and in many contexts of history, literature, and life. Asking for mercy is a way of asking for help.

But a lot of Christians today think of mercy as something a prisoner begs from a judge — basically a plea for leniency. While that’s a limited, but valid, meaning of the term in English, that’s not the way it’s used in Scripture, common Christian usage, or even in general usage. If you take mercy on someone, you help them. I’ve always seen it so. But I realized that in my Christian context, a lot of my fellow Christians have equated mercy with the leniency of a judge, not with rescue.

God’s forgiveness is a gift bestowed on all humanity. We don’t need to ask for it. We don’t need to do anything to gain it. He is a good God who loves mankind. His forgiveness is abundant and free. The following quote captures the real problem better than anything I could write.

So this isn’t a question about whether we’ve forgiven. No, the problem lies elsewhere; the problem is we keep on sinning. Sin is in us like an infection in the blood. It keeps us choosing to do and say and think things that damage Creation and hurt other people — and the ill effects rebound on us as well. There can even be sin without guilt. Sometimes we add to the weary world’s burden of sin through something we did in ignorance or unintentionally, for example, by saying something that hurt a hearer for reasons we knew nothing about. Our words increased the sin-sickness in the world, yet we are not guilty for that unintentional sin (though we are still sorry for inadvertently causing pain). Sin can be recognized as a noxious force on earth without having to pin the guilt on someone every time.

In the Eastern view, all humans share a common life; when Christ became a member of the human race, our restoration was begun. The opposite is, sadly, true as well; our continuing sins infect and damage everybody else, and indeed Creation itself. It’s like air pollution. There is suffering for everyone who shares our human life, everyone who breathes, even the innocent who never did anyone harm.

I will add that we need look no further than the life of Christ to see the truth of that last sentence. If there was ever anyone who was truly innocent, it was he. And yet he shared in all our suffering. So when we cry to him for mercy — for help — Jesus understands in a way only another human being could. We keep asking for mercy because we continue to need help. At least, I continue to need help every moment and every day. I suppose I shouldn’t presume to speak for others who may need less help than me. Sometimes, if I stop asking for mercy, I begin to believe I no longer need any help. That rarely ends well.

I’ll close with another quoted paragraph from this chapter. It describes what has been slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) happening in my life.

Theosis is a vast and daunting goal even to imagine, so there’s something distinctively, sweetly Christian about using a prayer that is so simple. There have been plenty of other religions that taught convoluted mystical procedures for union with God, but for Christians it is as straightforward as calling on our Lord and asking him for mercy. As you form the habit of saying this prayer in the back of your mind all the time, it soaks into you, like dye into cotton, and colors the way you encounter every person and circumstance you meet.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

Posted: December 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 4

19.  The soul’s salvation is the consummation of faith (cf. 1 Pet. 1:9). This consummation is the revelation of what has been believed. Revelation is the inexpressible interpenetration of the believer with the object of belief and takes place according to each believer’s degree of faith (cf. Rom. 12:6). Through that interpenetration the believer finally returns to his origin. This return is the fulfillment of desire. Fulfillment of desire is ever-active repose in the object of desire. Such repose is eternal uninterrupted enjoyment of this object. Enjoyment of this kind entails participation in supra-natural divine realities. This participation consists in the participant becoming like that in which he participates. Such likeness involves, so far as this is possible, an identity with respect to energy between the participant and that in which he participates by virtue of the likeness. This identity with respect to energy constitutes the deification of the saints. Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages, and of all that exists in either. This encompassing and fulfillment is the union, in the person granted salvation, of his real authentic origin with his real authentic consummation. This union presupposes a transcending of all that by nature is essentially limited by an origin and a consummation. Such transcendence is effected by the almighty and more than powerful energy of God, acting in a direct and infinite manner in the person found worthy of this transcendence. The action of this divine energy bestows a more than ineffable pleasure and joy on him in whom the unutterable and unfathomable union with the divine is accomplished. This, in the nature of things, cannot be perceived, conceived or expressed.

I don’t have any comments on this text and I’m not even entirely sure I understand it. Actually, I’m fairly certain I don’t understand it. But I’ve been trying to wrap my little head around theosis or deification for years now, so I thought I would go ahead and publish this text. Maybe somebody reading might want to take a stab at it in the comments.


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.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 10 – Theosis or Deification

Posted: July 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

If our basic problem is that we don’t want God and are not able to live within him and in union with him, what’s the solution? This question points to the deeper meaning and accomplishment of the work of the mystery of the Incarnation. It’s why Christians traditionally believed and taught that Christ would have become one of us even if mankind had not “fallen.” He would not have had to die in that instance, but without the Incarnation we have no means for true union with God.

As I’ve discussed on posts regarding what it means that God is holy, he is the wholly other uncreated one. We are mere creatures and have no capacity on our own for communion with God. In the Incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth joined the divine nature with our human nature. By assuming our nature, he not only defeated death and provided the means for our healing, he bridged that divide. As St. Athanasius wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.

God has accomplished all that is needed for our union with him, which is our true salvation. It’s a done work. The potential for that union through Christ lies within every single human being. Truly, everything God planned to do was accomplished or finished by Christ. The question before us is not what God wants or desires or has done. Rather, the question we must answer is a much more difficult one. Do we want God?

That’s not an idle question. Answering it is a matter of a life lived. I know in my own life there are times when I have grown, at least a little, in communion in God. And there are times when I have not wanted God at all. God is constant. We are inconstant. But if we will turn what little of our will we can toward God, he is there with all the grace (which is to say himself) that we need to move toward union with him. Baby steps are often all we can manage. The question is less about how much or how little we are able to do and more about whether or not we choose to become the sort of person who wants God.

Salvation, then, is becoming one with the three Persons of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. We maintain our distinctive personhood even in perfect union. Hell is what we do to ourselves and to others when we don’t want God and when we hate our fellow human being. There is no standing still in this process. We are either moving toward union with God and embracing life or we are seeking a non-existence we are helpless to achieve as we turn from God.

Do I want God? It’s a haunting question. I believe that much of the time I want to want God. At least I now know that this particular God who was made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth loves and wants me. For much of my life, I did not recognize and understand that truth. I find he is a God worth wanting.


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?


Holy, Holy, Holy

Posted: October 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. Isaiah 6:3

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Trisagion

A couple of days ago, @tomcottar retweeted @edstetzer:

Holiness is not separation from sinners. It is separation from sin.

At the time I had several thoughts, but none that would fit in 140 characters, so I let it go. I saw it retweeted some more that day, so it stayed on my mind. Then yesterday, I was following up a reference in the OSB when I saw this note with Ephesians 1:4-6.

Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Christ into one’s life as getting oneself into Christ’s life.

As I reflected on that, I realized that I would need to capture my reaction to the initial tweet on holiness in writing and it would take me considerably more than 140 characters to do it.

I believe many people think of holy as roughly synonymous with good or pure or moral. And, at least in the sense that Christians use the word, that’s really not what it means. We draw our use and understanding from that of the ancient Jewish people and qadosh, to the extent that I understand it, draws more from the idea of being distinct, set apart, or separate. As an illustration, variants of the word refer to the male and female temple prostitutes that were common in the ancient pagan world. The ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of the practice as pure or moral, but did recognize that the temple prostitutes had been set apart for worship, even if pagan worship.

As an aside, that does also illustrate an interesting point. Monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, is not actually the belief of the ancient Jewish people. Rather, it’s a belief that developed over time and we probably don’t see it really in evidence until around the 2nd century BCE. For much of the Old Testament, the faith of the Israelites is better described as henotheism, or the worship of one God even as you accept the reality of other gods. God guided them through a long transition from polytheism to monotheism rooted in the commandment to worship only him. The story of the people of God makes a lot more sense if you read it with that understanding.

One of the tidbits I’ve picked up along the way about the ancient hebrew language is that it did not have comparatives and superlatives (as was not uncommon in ancient languages) in the same way that we modify words to express those concepts. Rather, it repeated the word being emphasized. Thus “holy, Holy, HOLY” as the angels are singing in Isaiah’s vision is a way of saying the most Holy or the most apart, distinct, separate, or different. God, in his essence, is entirely other from creation. He is the uncreated. And yet in the same song, we find the remarkable tension of our faith. God is entirely other from creation, and at the same time all creation is filled with his glory. God is immanent. This is the truth we see  fully realized in the Incarnation of our Lord. The God who is wholly other becomes fully one of us. The God who is other enters into and joins his creation in the most intimate way possible. Why? Because our God is a God who is love and love sacrifices for the other. Our God is good and the lover of mankind. He is not other and distant, but other and near. We pray in the Trisagion for the thrice holy God to have mercy on us. And the raw beauty of the Incarnation is that he does, in the only way possible.

And that, finally, brings me to my reaction to the tweet. The words from which “sin” is translated draw from a theme of “missing the mark“. Since our mark is God and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), it is true that as we draw toward our mark, we will move away from that which is not our mark. And the point of the tweet is an important one. As the people of the Christ (indeed, in so intimate a way that a description of the Church as body and as bride is natural in Scripture) who dined with tax collectors and sinners without regard for the laws regarding ritual cleanliness, as those who are already being healed, we must not draw away from those who need healing. We are the hospital.

As another aside, in the laws of ritual cleanliness by which, in part, the Jews were set apart as a people, it’s clear that one could be made ritually unclean by touch. Ritual cleanness or holiness, however, could not be similarly transmitted. That was utterly dependent on your own actions and required positive effort. Jesus, however, acted utterly differently. Not only did he act as though he could not be made unclean by contact, he acted as though those who came in contact with him could be made clean. Unless you understand that part of the context, you will miss part of the power of the Gospel narratives.

Back to the point, though I agree with the intent of the original tweet, I think there is a problem with the way it’s phrased. Whatever our intent, when we express an idea of “holiness” in the negative sense, as something that it is not, we put the focus and emphasis on that thing which it is not. So by describing holiness as separation from sin, we place the focus on sin. And when that happens, I can find no place in history or experience where our efforts do not collapse into moralism and legalism. We inevitably end up doing exactly what Ed Stetzer was tweeting against. We draw away from sinners.

I would suggest that we are better served by focusing on what holiness is rather than on what it is not. And, as Fr. Alexander Schmemman says in For the Life of the World: “Holy” is the real name of God. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We seek to live by growing in communion with God. We are on a journey to rejoin our life, toward union with the only source of life. Holiness lies in the journey of theosis.

Holy is God and holiness is our life in Christ.


The Didache 5 – Abstain from Worldly Lusts

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

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

Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts.

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

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

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

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

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

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