Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

Posted: July 24th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 1

1.  First the intellect marvels when it reflects on the absolute infinity of God, that boundless sea for which it longs so much. Then it is amazed at how God has brought things into existence out of nothing. But just as ‘His magnificence is without limit’ (Ps. 145:3. LXX), so ‘there is no penetrating His purposes’ (Isa. 40:28).

I want to note something in this text that’s somewhat tangential. I’ve often encountered a modern idea that the ancient “Greek” fathers twisted the Christian tradition they received into something else through the influence of  Greek philosophy. (I’ll note that St. Ephraim, St. Isaac, and many others weren’t actually Greek at all. They are called “Greek” fathers, I believe, because they wrote in Greek.) Yet above we see St. Maximos referring to the ex nihilo act of creation by God. That stands in sharp contrast to pagan Greek philosophy. Yes, they used the terms available to them in the language of their time. We do the same today. The words we have are our available tools. But they used that language to fight against Greek philosophy and Christian heresies in those areas where they did not conform to the faith that had been handed down to them. If you actually read the fathers, you can’t help but see that truth. It permeates their writings.

Reflecting on St. Maximos’ text for today, all I can say is go read Colossians. If your mind doesn’t marvel and your heart (nous) isn’t at least momentarily stilled in wonder, I’m not sure you’ve allowed yourself to truly understand what it says.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 30

Posted: April 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 30

60. All the gross passions that dominate the soul drive from it the thought of self-esteem. But when all these passions have been defeated, they leave self-esteem free to take control.

61.  Self-esteem, whether it is eradicated or whether it remains, begets pride. When it is eradicated, it generates self-conceit; when it remains, it produces boastfulness.

62.  Self-esteem is eradicated by the hidden practice of the virtues, pride, by ascribing our achievements to God.

These three texts fit together as they all discuss self-esteem. The Fathers within Christianity have always tended to see self-esteem as a problem, not as something we should seek or desire. That does not, however, mean that they teach we should have what today we describe as low self-esteem. It’s my impression they would view that as a distortion as well. Their focus seems to be that we learn to see ourselves truthfully with nothing accentuated or overlooked. Facing the reality about ourselves is a hard thing, which is why we tend to lie to ourselves so easily.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 28

Posted: April 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 28

58.  Just as parents have a special affection for the children who are the fruit of their own bodies, so the intellect naturally clings to its own thoughts. And just as to passionately fond parents their own children seem the most capable and most beautiful of all – though they may be quite the most ridiculous in every way – so to a foolish intellect its own thoughts appear the most intelligent of all, though they may be utterly degraded. The wise man does not regard his own thoughts in this way. It is precisely when he feels convinced that they are true and good that he most distrusts his own judgment. He makes other wise men the judges of his thoughts and arguments – lest he should run, or may have run, in vain (cf. Gal. 2:2) – and from them receives assurance.

Take a minute to work through this text. The comparison St. Maximos uses intrigues me as a parent. Of course, my children have all actually been the most capable and beautiful, so I’m sure he’s speaking more about other parents than me personally. 😛 Nevertheless, he exposes a deep truth about us — a truth that lines up perfectly with postmodern sensibilities. For we know that we lie to ourselves most of all, don’t we?

This text reminds me of a TED video I linked in a recent Weekend Update about being wrong. The speaker pointed out that being wrong (as opposed to realizing we are or were wrong) feels exactly the same as being right. Think about that for a minute and you’ll see the truth in it.

We necessarily believe our thoughts or opinions are right or else we would change them. Perhaps there are people out there who can simultaneously hold a belief or opinion and at the same time believe that it’s not true, but I’m not one of them. However, it’s a foregone conclusion that we are all wrong somewhere. We just don’t presently know where.

Now in retrospect, I’m sure we can all see places where our beliefs have changed over time. Perhaps some reading this have not been through as many or as dramatic shifts as I have over the course of my life, but I’m sure nobody has maintained exactly the same set of opinions and beliefs over the course of their entire life. And the fact that we now believe something different is an indication that we believe our earlier selves were wrong.

So we should all take St. Maximos’ warning to heart. This may be one reason I’ve always intuitively traced beliefs in Christianity. If I can see they originated with one person somewhere along the way and diverge from the organic, shared understanding of the Church, I’ve tended to distrust the belief. Or maybe I’m just not very trusting in general. But this is certainly one reason I tend to hold many beliefs loosely. I’m constantly deconstructing them. It’s not a process I can start and stop.


How to Speak of God

Posted: March 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Speak of God

In this post, I plan to continue the train of thought I began in Speaking Carefully About God and explore how we then should speak of God. I’m not an expert in any way, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have developed over the years — many of them the result of things I have heard and read from multiple sources.

I want to begin with perhaps the central Christian truth when it comes to describing God in human language. Nothing we say or think can ever truly describe God. Our God, the only uncreated and the one in whom and through whom all creation subsists, so far transcends us we cannot truly know him. We lack the capacity. That’s the central reason the Word, the only begotten Son, became human — to join God’s nature to our human nature so we would have a means through him to know and commune with God.

And that’s fine with me. A God my mind could compass would be too small a God for me to ever worship. But the fact that God so utterly transcends us means we must be exceedingly cautious in the way we describe him.

And thus Christians have developed a way of speaking apophatically about God. It’s really not that difficult. Every time we find ourselves saying or reading a description of God, we must always keep in mind that as much as that description may help us say something about God, at the same time the description so utterly fails to capture the fullness of our God, that we could also say that God is not like that at all.

For instance, we say that God is love. In fact, it’s a positive statement about God taken straight from the Holy Scriptures. This is not some attribute of God; it’s a statement about his very essence. And it’s important that we understand this truth for when we say that God is love we exclude many false descriptions of God — some of which, unfortunately, seem to be popular today.

Nevertheless, we also must then say that God’s love is not like any love we’ve ever known. It’s utterly pure and unending. God’s love knows no conditions and no bounds. God is love and that transcendent love binds creation together and at the same time is so intimately personal that God is with me, around me, and within me filling every breath I take and every beat of my heart. It’s love without condemnation, but a love so fierce it can also be described as a consuming fire. If the image I have in mind of love is any that I’ve known, then I’m forced to say God is not that sort of love at all. So in that sense, God is not love.

And the same is true of anything else we might say. Jesus gave us a prayer in which we call God Father, but if, when we do that, we have in mind our father or any other father we’ve known, that image will lead us astray. Whatever sort of father we had, good or bad, our fathers are all still human. They still have failings and limitations. God is not like that at all. So we must also say that he is not Father in the way we have known fathers.

If we lose that tension and the caution it brings to the images and words we use to speak and consider God, we will inevitably distort our understanding of God in some way. When I find myself saying something about God, I try to remind myself that my description inevitably falls so short of the reality of God that it’s almost as false as it is true.

In and through Christ, we can however mystically know God. We can receive him. We can commune with God. We have access to the sort of knowledge that transcends language. In that sense, it’s not so very different from knowing another human being. We don’t get to know someone by learning a bunch of facts about them — even if those facts are true and accurate. We get to know others by spending time with them, by talking with them, and through shared experience. And so it is with God. Even though he utterly transcends our knowledge, yet we can still know him.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll discuss the Trinity. For whenever we speak of the Christian God, we must always speak in a triune manner.


More on Contraceptive Coverage Laws and the Catholic Church

Posted: February 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on More on Contraceptive Coverage Laws and the Catholic Church

So, I posted my initial thoughts on this topic in a post here as my thoughts on the topic began to gell. I also participated in a discussion on this topic in posts on Fr. Christian’s blog here and here. I also went back and read the actual rule from last August. (The January announcement was simply that they weren’t going to change the religious exemption portion of the regulation, but would give religious employers an extra year to comply.) As I read the rule, I noticed it referenced existing state laws requiring contraceptive coverage. And that piqued my interest, so I broadened my research. The things I found were … interesting.

First, I found a site that collected information on the states that require contraceptive coverage. In short, over half of US states already require some form of contraceptive coverage, many of them for a decade or more. Many of them have some form of religious exemption. Some of them have no exemption. It’s when I began reading the state laws that I noticed they tended to use very similar language when they did provide a religious exemption. Some of them even cited a specific definition from the U.S.C. So I looked up that definition. It’s in 26 U.S.C. section 3121(w)(3)(A) and (B).

(3) Definitions

(A) For purposes of this subsection, the term “church” means a church, a convention or association of churches, or an elementary or secondary school which is controlled, operated, or principally supported by a church or by a convention or association of churches.

(B) For purposes of this subsection, the term “qualified church-controlled organization” means any church-controlled tax-exempt organization described in section 501 (c)(3), other than an organization which—

(i) offers goods, services, or facilities for sale, other than on an incidental basis, to the general public, other than goods, services, or facilities which are sold at a nominal charge which is substantially less than the cost of providing such goods, services, or facilities; and
(ii) normally receives more than 25 percent of its support from either

(I) governmental sources, or
(II) receipts from admissions, sales of merchandise, performance of services, or furnishing of facilities, in activities which are not unrelated trades or businesses, or both.

That’s actually very similar, if not identical, to the definition for religious exemption used in the HHS regulation. Notably, there’s no way a hospital or a university could meet the criteria for section B.

What does this mean? Well, basically it means that HHS was stating a fact when they said in the rule that the definition used was the one already in use in many of the states that required contraceptive coverage and allowed a religious exemption. Apparently Catholic hospitals and universities have continued to function in these different states just as they do in countries that provide contraceptive coverage to their citizens. I don’t recall hearing any outrage over these various state laws expressed. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any, but I don’t recall it and haven’t found any evidence of it. I also haven’t yet discovered if there were any legal challenges. However, if there were, given that these laws are still standing, they must have been unsuccessful. The HHS rule is neither unprecedented nor new. It would seem to have a pretty solid legal foundation.

Speaking the truth is important. And speaking the truth means more than just avoiding outright lies. It often means speaking the whole truth and not just the parts that serve your goals. It means expressing those truths in a way that avoids manipulation, distortion, and propaganda. That’s one of the reasons that, when I discuss things, I try really hard to provide the sources that are forming my opinions so that others can read them, check what I’m saying, and form their own opinions.

The deeper I’ve explored this issue the more evidence I’ve found that the Obama administration has simply spoken and written truth. The US Catholic Bishops? I’m not so sure. Why are they outraged at this rule and not the many other long-standing state laws that are either substantially the same or even more restrictive than the HHS rule? Why are they speaking as though this sort of requirement was something  new and radical when it isn’t? Those are some of the questions that begin to work their way through my mind.

The Bishops may be completely innocent of any intent toward propaganda and utterly sincere in their protestations. But when I keep finding things that aren’t mentioned by them in the discussion, it makes me wonder. I tend to be suspicious of institutions, power structures, and people who wield power anyway. And I’m sensitive, perhaps overly sensitive, to manipulation. My childhood was not innocent and I learned a lot of lessons that perhaps a child shouldn’t have to learn. I want to think the best of people, but there’s a part of me that has a very difficult time actually doing so.

Perhaps someone reading this will see through a different lens and offer a more positive perspective.

Update: And this is an EEOC decision from all the way back in 2000 regarding contraceptive coverage. It also references a Pregnancy Discrimination Act which apparently at that time had a Supreme Court decision supporting it. (I haven’t found or read the decision yet.) It does help explain how those states that passed laws allowing no religious exemption at all were able to do so.


Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Recently, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware gave a couple of lectures at North Park University in Chicago. The first lecture was on the Jesus Prayer. I recommend listening to the whole lecture, but I wanted to highlight his description of the two uses of the Jesus Prayer.

The first is the free use of the prayer. In the free use, the prayer is prayed at various times throughout the day during the course of your normal activities. This is the manner in which the Jesus Prayer came to me and it remains its most natural use to me. I like the way Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes the free use of the Jesus Prayer in a single phrase.

Find Christ everywhere.

That phrase succinctly captures the heart of this use of the prayer. Christ, of course, is everywhere. Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age. Christ, in union with the Father and the spirit, is everywhere present and filling all things. In him we live and move and have our being. All creation subsists in him from moment to moment.

But we easily lose sight of that reality. We tend to act and live as though Christ were somewhere else. The free use of the Jesus Prayer helps us find Christ where we are in the midst of our activities. And it invites us to shape our reaction to our circumstances in and through an awareness of Christ’s presence.

Am I angry or frustrated by a coworker? (I’ve been told I don’t easily suffer fools.) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Is rush hour traffic raising my blood pressure? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Am I tired of people, even people I love, placing demands on me? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Yes, those all seem like little things and minor annoyances. But if we do not learn to find Christ in the routine of our lives, we will not often find him in the larger things, either. I’m not sure why that’s true, but at least for me it is.

The second use of the Jesus Prayer is the fixed use. In other words, it’s the practice of the Jesus Prayer as part of a daily or fixed hour prayer rule. Khouria Frederica’s book has primarily focused on this use of the prayer, but it had not consciously occurred to me that the fixed use had a different goal. Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes its use in another easy to remember phrase.

Create silence.

With this phrase, he ties the prayer to a prayer from the Psalms. Be still, and know that I am God. It’s important to recognize that we cannot simply will inner silence. All traditions (at least those which value inner stillness) recognize that truth. All forms of meditation are, at least in part, designed to still our racing thoughts. However, the Christian tradition does not seek silence for its own sake. Rather, we seek stillness only to know God and know that he is God.

Curiously, be still and know that I am God, is another prayer (of sorts) that came to me at a time of great personal stress and which kept repeating until my frantic mind began to calm. Since that time, I’ve returned to it many times. Before this lecture, I had never made the connection between it and the Jesus Prayer.

Our cogitating minds, in their frenzy of thoughts, make God seem distant, even though he is anything but. With relatively rare exceptions,  God is not in the mighty wind, the shaking ground, or the raging fire. Rather, God comes to us in a still small voice and without silence, we do not hear him.


The Jesus Prayer 8 – The Little Radio

Posted: March 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 8 – The Little Radio

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

The Jesus Prayer itself is simple. There is not much to learn intellectually. I like the way Khouria Frederica expresses its simplicity.

1. Pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

2. Repeat.

That’s it. The hard part, though, is to say the words and actually mean them. It’s hard even to say the words and give them your attention. When you can keep your attention on the words, let them sink into the depths of your being, and learn to mean them, it’s possible to begin to sense “the responsive presence of the Lord.

Khouria Frederica points out something I had never really considered. Many of us aren’t really sure it’s possible to sense the presence of God. That’s obviously true,  but it still seems alien to me. I’ve never assumed it was easy to sense God, but I’ve always known it was possible. In some part, though my formation was not really Christian, I think it did help form my understanding of what it means to be receptive. I watch the meditation scene in Eat, Pray, Love and I fully empathize. It’s hard work to calm your thoughts and open yourself — even if you are not specifically trying to be receptive to God in a Christian sense.

The book lightly explores our modern dichotomy of head and heart. We place thoughts in the head and emotions in the heart, but the two are not really separate. Emotions shape thoughts and beliefs and thoughts spur emotions. They are intertwined within our active, cogitating mind. Scripturally, of course, head is never used as a synonym for “reason.” Rather thoughts are said to arise from the heart and strong emotions from the bowels or kidneys or womb — basically your guts.

When we use the term “mind” or “reason” we normally mean our active, rational thoughts. The Greeks had a term for that faculty. However, they also had a word for the receptive and perceptive faculty of our minds for which we do not have a corresponding English word. The Greek word is nous and it’s almost always the word used in Scripture that is often translated in English as mind. It’s the part of our mind in which we understand (if we do), the part that deals directly with life, the part that recognizes truth.

It’s in and through our nous that we can directly encounter God. Khouria Frederica calls the nous our “little radio” that is designed to be tuned to God. I like that imagery. We all have the capacity to hear and encounter God. We can truly experience God.


Be Careful Little Ears?

Posted: February 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Be Careful Little Ears?

The title of this post comes from a child’s song sometimes sung in at least some churches. I can’t actually remember when or where I heard the song. I probably heard it at some point over the last eighteen years as we raised children in a local SBC church. But I have this almost-memory of my mother singing it when I was little. It’s strange, sometimes, the things that pop into your head and the memories that surface when you’re searching for a title.

There is a certain truth in the song. The things we hear and see and experience, especially when young, do tend to form and shape us — often in non-linear and unexpected ways. I don’t believe we can truly be shielded from those experiences, no matter how “careful” we are, but we are shaped by them. I do believe the forces to which we expose our children are important. We cannot always, or even often, control them all. But where we can, I believe our choices do matter.

I’m not sure I’ve done my kids any favors in and through the church in which we raised them.

That was a hard sentence to write, but I believe it’s true. Of course, there are many things in our little corner of Christianity that have often seemed odd to me as an adult. Some things I would try on for size for a while and other things I rejected outright. I’ve been learning and struggling to understand which of the countless Christian stories best describes this faith for years, but I’ve been doing it as an adult.

Young earth creationism? Pshaw! That’s such a ludicrous idea it never had the slightest chance with me. I quickly figured out that I completely rejected what Protestant “complementarianism” in any of its flavors held about the nature and role of women. The rapture/end times stuff appealed to the part of me that loves a good fantasy novel for a season, but as I came to understand Christianity better, I also came to see the harmful side to that perspective. I saw the inconsistency in the teaching about hell as a place somehow separated from God where God sends people (for whatever reason) from the start. (If everything is contingent on God, then it’s not possible to be separated from God.) And the whole thing about Jesus’ suffering and death somehow being a payment to God? That never seemed right to me, though I set it aside for some years while I learned more about this Christian thing.

I guess I somehow thought my kids, especially with the balance of what we taught and lived at home, were able to make the same critical distinctions. In retrospect, that was a silly assumption. After all, I took in everything to which I was exposed more or less uncritically (at least at first) when I was growing up. But I didn’t begin to realize the nature of my error until one of my older sons was a senior in high school. He was dating a devout Roman Catholic girl and I remember his surprise that there were Christian traditions (most of them, in fact) that did not hold to young earth creationism. He knew that I rejected YEC, as I had often mentioned its failings, but somehow that didn’t translate into a broader understanding that you could be Christian without believing the universe was a few thousand years old. I then began to notice my sons were absorbing ideas about women I considered harmful. I decided I needed to immerse myself in the environment in which I had been placing them when my younger son entered the student ministry.

I did that for a number of years and it was a valuable experience. I even found a close friend in the process, something I didn’t expect at all. Over time I came to better understand some of the ways the Baptist youth experience shapes and forms teenagers. (And by extension, I believe that’s even more true of the various children’s ministries.) When we place our children in an environment and tell them it is about God, we are lending our own formational power as parents to the structures and teachings of that environment. Spiritual formation is already a powerful force and when we lend our reinforcement — even tacitly — we do not necessarily get to choose what does and does not get reinforced.

When I had reached a point where I had pretty much decided I wasn’t comfortable having my children immersed in such an environment, I shared my concerns with a couple of friends. One of them wondered if church could really have that much influence. After all, kids spend an order of magnitude more time at school, with friends, and at home than at church. I knew some of the things my children had absorbed could only have been found at our church — at least among their particular circles of friends. And at the time I wandered into musings about the power of spiritual groups and teachings in general at any age, but especially in the formation of children. I’ve touched on some of those forces in this post.

But this past weekend while skating with my youngest daughter, a different thought popped into my head out of the blue. Let’s assume my friend’s point was accurate and the influence of church is directly proportional to the time spent at the church. And given that so much more time is spent at school and with friends, that means church has relatively little overall influence. If that’s true, then what’s the point in taking your children to any church, especially one in which it is understood that everything is purely “symbolic” and nothing actually happens?

It seems to me we can’t have it both ways. Either the church exerts a powerful influence in the formation of our children or it has little influence at all. If the former is true, then it’s important to consider everything about that influence since we can’t really control what they will or won’t absorb. If the latter is true, then there’s no point in taking them to any church at all. It’s a waste of time and effort. It can’t simultaneously be important to bring your children to church and have that experience be meaningless in their formation as human beings.

I don’t really have any answers or deep conclusions. I knew from my own experience and intuition that influence is not bound by number of hours so I never really considered the implications of the opposite conclusion. Nor can I say why the thought suddenly popped into my head years later. My mind is sometimes a mystery to me. I often work through thoughts by writing. If you’ve read this far expecting that I have answers to offer, I apologize. Sometimes I just want to make the questions clearer.

Grace and peace.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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