Male and Female He Created Them

Posted: June 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I wasn’t particularly shaped by Christianity, culturally or otherwise, growing up. Since I’ve become Christian, I’ve struggled with the various Christian ideas about what it means to be a human being and to be male and female. None of them ever really seemed to fit to me. Some of them I found repugnant, but many were not. They just didn’t feel right.

This lecture by Fr. John Behr finally begins to fill that gap. If you’ve had those moments where you hear something, your perception shifts, and it just feels right, that was my reaction. He walks through the primary texts and ties them together in a way I’m certain I’ve never heard before (though I’ve heard many of the elements at one time or another).

He also ties together a number of things I’ve heard and read over the years, but somehow never quite connected the dots. God’s creation of the human being is not something completed in the distant past of Genesis. Rather, it’s a project God begins, but one that is only completed when Jesus utters the words, “It is finished.” What is finished? God’s project. The creation of the human being is accomplished. And when Christ rests in the tomb on Saturday, it’s not something like the seventh day sabbath of Genesis 1. It is that sabbath.

When you perceive reality through that lens, it changes everything. I’ll certainly take Fr. Behr’s perspective over much of what passes for discussion about “authentic” manhood or womanhood in modern American Christian circles. I wanted to offer it to others who might read here as well.

Male and Female He Created Them


Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife

Posted: February 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

For those who found my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) interesting, I wanted to provide a link to an article on Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible that I read this past week. The article goes into more detail on some topics than I did in my series, especially when it comes to the different ways Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna were often translated to fit the preconceptions of English translators. I agree with the author that it would have been better to have simply transliterated each since they are, after all, what we would consider proper names. That would have been less misleading and ultimately clearer.

There are also details I didn’t know. The section on the “burning stone” (sulfur) and the way it was seen and thus named was new to me, though it fits perfectly with everything I already knew of the ancient cultures involved. The often heard English phrase “fire and brimstone” would thus be better translated “divine fire” which makes a lot more sense. And, of course, since light and fire were inseparable concepts before the advent of electrical lights, it could also be understood as “divine light.”

The history of Origen is more complicated than the author of the article takes time to explore. Unlike most heretics, he was not condemned until well after his death and it’s unclear if his followers took his teachings farther than he ever intended. Also, I think it’s important to speak clearly on one matter. The Church condemned the assertion that everyone would ultimately be saved as heresy. As far as I can tell, the incredulity expressed by those like St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian that the love of God would not eventually win over the even the most twisted and cold human heart is not rejected out of hand. Pious hope and prayer for all human beings is allowed.

It’s a very good article on balance, I think. I don’t hesitate to recommend it.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 26

Posted: December 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 26

74.  If God is essential knowledge, then God is subordinate to the intellect, for clearly the intellect is prior to all knowledge that it embraces. Therefore God is beyond knowledge because He is infinitely  beyond every intellect, whatever the knowledge it embraces.

It seems to me this is a central failing that permeates many of the fragments within the Protestant tradition. There is a sense that knowing God is the same as acquiring knowledge about God. Thus, infants are not baptized or considered to be able to be Christian because they have not attained the level of cognitive development required to grasp the essential knowledge of God. The primary discipline for knowing God is bible study. God is subordinate to the intellect.

Now, that’s not to say that reading and studying the Holy Scriptures is unimportant. St. John Chrysostom often chided his wealthy parishioners in Constantinople for failing to spend their wealth on a copy of the Scriptures (or at least the Gospels if they couldn’t afford the whole Scriptures), or if they had, for failing to read them. But God is beyond all knowledge, even the knowledge of the Scriptures. In some ways, we might even be better served if we could continue to know him as uncritically as an infant does. Jesus seems to say something like that at times.

Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 13

Posted: October 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 13

36.  He who aspires to divine realities willingly allows providence to lead him by principles of wisdom towards the grace of deification. He who does not so aspire is drawn, by the just judgment of God and against his will, away from evil by various forms of discipline. The first, as a lover of God, is deified by providence; the second, although a lover of matter, is held back from perdition by God’s judgment. For since God is goodness itself, He heals those who desire it through the principles of wisdom, and through various forms of discipline cures those who are sluggish in virtue.

St. Maximos here describes a God who is truly “not willing that any should perish.” So many modern descriptions of God do not. This is a God who meets everyone where they are. If we desire communion, he gives us grace, that is himself, to give us the strength to move forward. And if we do not desire God, he uses loving discipline (not the borderline or outright abusive treatment many modern Christian parenting gurus recommend) to heal us.

Often God allows us to experience the natural consequences of our choices. Sometimes he might rescue us from them. Always God is drawing us to communion — with Him and with other human beings.

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.

Brick Wall, Trampoline, or Something Else?

Posted: June 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

A small paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 has been bouncing around my head these past weeks. I have several threads of thought so this post might be a little more disjointed than the ones I usually write. Nevertheless, I think I need to take a few moments to capture some of my thoughts and express them. It’s one of the ways I think. I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is another of the ways I process thoughts.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I should put a general caveat somewhere on my blog that anything I write on a given day expresses my reaction and understanding on that particular day. I may or may not have the same understanding or reaction on another day, whether that day comes years, months, weeks, or days later. Heck, I might not have precisely the same reaction later in the same day. As things I have written accumulate on this blog, it’s perfectly possible that something new I write might express a differing or even opposing view from something I’ve written in the past.

That doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the process and story of my life. A friend of mine was once taken by the opposing descriptions of the structure of belief as a brick wall or a trampoline. In the former case people spend a lot of effort shoring up the wall and if the wrong brick falls out, the whole thing collapses. Whereas, the latter has a strong framework, but a lot of freedom within that framework. He saw himself as moving or having moved from the brick wall to the trampoline and found the analogy very fitting.

Me? I would say the trampoline has too much structure, is too rigid, and is too unyielding to describe my process and internal experience. One analogy I’ve used is that of a river. Sometimes it is calmer. Sometimes it’s raging through a flood stage. But it’s always moving, with currents and eddies you may not be able to see until you’re caught in them. In that river, I may have a few fixed constructs or formations — a rock around which the waters part and swirl or a bridge that rises above them. But never anything as fixed or stable as the image of a trampoline.

Another image I use is that of a large pot of homemade soup. It’s bubbling and swirling as you add ingredients. The ingredients cook and intermingle in ways that are not always obvious. You taste and add things as you cook, moving toward a goal that may not be clearly defined but which you will recognize if you achieve it. The soup never stays in any one state nor is it ever exactly the same every time you cook it. Hmmm. The bubbling cauldron of soup is not merely an image for my internal process, but also captures  much about the manner in which I perceive reality.

Well, I’ve rambled about my inner state and have written nothing that I originally intended to write. But I think I’ll just change the title and let this post stand as written. I’ll try to write the post I originally intended to write for Friday.

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 2

Posted: June 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

3.  When passions dominate the intellect, they separate it from God, binding it to material things and preoccupying it with them. But when love of God dominates the intellect, it frees it from its bonds, persuading it to rise above not only sensible things but even this transitory life.

I have lived a life that has often been shaped more by the passions that have ruled me than by my own intention and will. Passion, it must be remembered, does not mean sin. It means suffering. (Or at least that is one of its meanings.) When I am ruled by a passion, I can still be many things, but I am not free.

God seeks always to heal and free us. If you encounter a group whose God does not do both, do not listen to them when they try to tell you that their God is the Christian God. In the past, I heard such claims and believed them. And as a result, I rejected Christianity entirely for a long time. I thought I knew the Christian God and wanted nothing to do with him.

God loves us. He is the one good God who loves mankind. He is the wise God who is always working to heal and free us. But freedom is a tricky thing. You cannot be forced to be free. I’m reminded of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. I’ve known since I first read the book as a child that I did not want to be those dwarves. But I didn’t realize for many years how difficult a task it is to be anything but a dwarf trapped in a stable that no longer exists.

For the Life of the World 39

Posted: February 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 39

This post focuses on sections 7-10 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Section 7 focuses of the essay focuses on the way that causality and guarantees were built into the theology of sacraments and how they were thus transformed from intrinsic and revealing in their union with Christ to extrinsic and formal. They began to shift toward individual acts of piety and sanctification rather than “catholic acts of the Church fulfilling herself.” It’s a pretty dense section, but I think I get his point. We turned what was intended to sustain our life in communion into separate acts over which we could exercise control.

Fr. Schmemann then returns to the “Orthodox perspective” and asks how a rediscovery of sacraments can occur. And in this context he makes an interesting point about something I have seen people do.

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice. For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers. The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed. It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view.

A proper reading requires a recovery of the ancient Christian understanding of “symbol” and Fr. Schmemann suggests a starting point is with the Symbol of symbols himself, Jesus of Nazareth. When one sees Him, they “see” the Father, has the communion of the Holy Spirit, and has already eternal life.

It is at this point, in this agonizing “focus” of the actual Christian situation, that the preceding analysis acquires, we hope, its true significance. For it shows that if Christianity fails to fulfill its symbolic function — to be that “unitive principle” — it is because “symbol” was broken, at first, by Christians themselves. As a result of this breakdown Christianity has come to look today, in the eyes of the world at least, like, on the one hand, a mere intellectual doctrine which moreover “cracks” under the pressure of an entirely different intellectual context, or, on the other hand, a mere religious institution which also “cracks” under the pressure of its own institutionalism. … For the whole point is that holy is not and can never be a mere adjective, a definition sufficient to guarantee the divine authority and origin of anything. If it defines anything it is from the inside, not outside. It reveals and manifests, vide Rudolf Otto, the “mysterium tremendum,” i.e., an inherent power which in a doctrine transcends its intellectualism and in an institution its institutionalism. It is this “holy” — the power of an epiphany — that is hopelessly missing today in both doctrine and institution, and this, not because of human sins and limitations, but precisely because of a deliberate choice: the rejection and the dissolution of symbol as the fundamental structure of Christian “doctrine” and Christian “institution”.

And so Fr. Schmemann asks where and how the rediscovery of symbol itself can be achieved.

The answer of Orthodox theology once it recovers from its “Western captivity” ought to be: in the unbroken liturgical life of the Church, in that sacramental tradition which in the East, at least, has not been significantly altered by the wanderings of an alienated theology. We have pointed out already that the fatal error of post-patristic rationalism was the isolation of the sacrament from the liturgy as total expression of the Church’s life and faith. It meant, in fact, the isolation of the sacrament from the symbol, i.e., from that connection and communication with the whole of reality which are fulfilled in the sacrament.

His conclusion to the essay and thus to the whole book is quite a sentence. It reminds me of trying to read Paul, actually.

In concluding, we can only say that if such a task were undertaken, it would show that the proper function of the “leitourgia” has always been to bring together, within one symbol, the three levels of the Christian faith and life: the Church, the world, and the Kingdom; that the Church herself is thus the sacrament in which the broken, yet still “symbolical,” life of “this world” is brought, in Christ and by Christ, into the dimension of the Kingdom of God, becoming itself the sacrament of the “world to come,” or that which God has from all eternity prepared for those who  love Him, and where all that which is human can be transfigured by grace so that all things may be consummated in God; that finally it is here and only here — in the “mysterion” of God’s presence and action — that the Church always becomes that which she is: the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the unique Symbol “bringing together” — by bringing to God the world for the life of which He gave His Son.

It’s a small book, but one densely packed with deep thoughts. I’ve enjoyed working my way through it.

For the Life of the World 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.