The Jesus Prayer 6 – Miracles

Posted: March 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 6 – Miracles

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 mentions something I believe it’s important to expand. Experiences which we call miracles remain common within the Orthodox world. However, I think miracles in a Christian sense are deeply misunderstood in the modern West. At least, they are understood differently than they are in the East. Much of that difference stems from different perceptions of reality.

A great deal of Western Christianity today views God as somehow removed from creation. God may not be placed far away where the Deists placed him, but there is a sense of separation. Operating from within that mindset, a miracle is typically perceived as God intervening or contravening the natural order.

That is not the case within Eastern Christianity. God is perceived as everywhere present and filling all things. In him we live and move and have our being. He is also seen as in some sense restoring creation and in another sense having already restored creation in Christ. (It’s spoken of in both senses. Some of that expresses the way the reality of God transcends our concept and experience of time.) A miracle, then, is not God contravening the “natural” order of creation. In some cases, like the burning bush and the Transfiguration (and any other experience of the uncreated light), it’s God helping us to see the true nature of reality. In other cases, it’s a restoration of the true nature and function of our humanity. (Within Orthodoxy, Jesus’ ability to command the storm is seen as much an expression of his true humanity as it is of his divinity — though you will find it discussed both ways.) In some instances, it’s an eschatological  revelation of the fulfillment of all things achieved in Christ.

Of course, in Orthodoxy there is also a deep awareness that there are forces intent on deceiving us. Not every “miraculous” occurrence is of God. Not every “angel” is truly an angel of light. Indeed that is a favored deception! Not every “spirit” is the Holy Spirit. I’m reminded of a story of an Orthodox bishop who, for whatever reason, was invited to a modern charismatic meeting. It was one of those in which the Spirit (supposedly) descended and created spontaneous outbursts of “holy barking.” The hierarch immediately said, “That’s not the Holy Spirit. That’s the spirit of Anubis.” I think he was right, though I never would have phrased it that way before I heard the story.

We have lost much of our ability to discern reality in the West. The discipline of the Jesus Prayer, if practiced with a true heart, can help us learn to have eyes to see and ears to hear. I truly believe that or I would not heed it at all, much less discuss or attempt to practice it. We do not want to open ourselves to any spirit or any experience. Although I have practiced such disciplines in the past (as a non-Christian), I now see my former actions as foolhardy. By the grace of God I was relatively unscathed, but many are not so fortunate. No, we wish to experience and encounter only the Holy Spirit. We need to be careful to practice disciplines better focused toward that end. The Jesus Prayer has centuries of use supporting it. That’s not true of many modern Christian practices.


Four Hundred Texts on Love 14

Posted: May 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love 14

48. The person who fears the Lord has humility as his constant companion and, through the thoughts which humility inspires, reaches a state of divine love and thankfulness. For he recalls his former worldly way of life, the various sins he has committed and the temptations which have befallen him since his youth; and he recalls, too, how the Lord delivered him from all this, and how He led him away from a passion-dominated life to a life ruled by God. Then, together with fear, he also receives love, and in deep humility continually gives thanks to the Benefactor and Helmsman of our lives.

Several threads of thought have bounced around my head as I’ve meditated on this text. The first thought is that the “buddy Jesus” so common today in Western evangelical Christianity is largely useless to me. I can look at the history of the fierce, angry, and autocratic God that was (and I suppose still is in places) proclaimed in so much of recent Western Christianity and I can understand why people felt the need to emphasize and even over-emphasize his love and accessibility. And don’t get me wrong, a God of love who is rescuing and seeking union with his creation is a marvelous and wonderful thing. I’m not particularly interested in trying to placate an angry God. And there is much that is deeply compelling about a personal and loving God that is lacking in most monist perspectives of reality. (When I was pursuing and following other religions, I tended to bounce between monism and polytheistic perspectives. Maybe that’s one reason I found Hinduism so attractive.)

But Jesus and I are not and cannot be equals. Yes, he emptied himself in the mystery of the Incarnation and joined with us, experiencing all that we experience, and opening the door for us to union with God. He “became man so that man might become God.” But just as much as Jesus is human, he is also the uncreated Word, the speech-act of God, the Son of the Most High. Moreover, he has ascended to the throne at the right hand of the Father as the Lord of creation. Ascension does not mean flying or floating in the air in this context. It’s the language of a king coming into the fullness of his power and authority. Jesus is the Lord over all creation.

If you have ever been helpless and vulnerable in the face of evil, you will know that we need a powerful Lord. “Buddy Jesus” might be a great guy with whom to hang out and have some fun, but is he the mighty God who has made the powers his footstool? God is absolutely a God of love, but that love is also a consuming fire. Who can stand in its light? If you begin to recognize who Jesus is, then respect, awe, and in that context, fear must necessarily follow. Not the sort of fear one has for the tyrant, but the fear one feels before the mighty and benevolent king.

If you see Jesus for who he is, then humility naturally follows. And it is only from within fear and humility that we can truly receive and be filled with love. Pride is as natural to us as breathing, but pride is the enemy of love. Pride also tends to flow from our need to order the world around us and make it safe. When we release that load and in humility trust the one who actually has the power to order reality, we can enter a better reality of love.

Moreover, when we begin to do that, we begin to be able to see ourselves as we truly are. We are able to see our lives through different eyes and recognize not only that we have “sinned” (which means to miss the mark), but how and why our passion-dominated life did miss the mark. Until we are freed, we sometimes don’t even realize we were captive.

Like many in our culture, I am also deeply individualistic. “I am the Master of my fate, I am the Captain of my soul.” That is our battle cry and our ideal. But it is also delusion. We exist as human beings in a deeply interwoven web of interconnections. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we depend on each other and our fates are intertwined. Jesus the Christ, our one true Lord, can make us free, but he will not force freedom on us. If you consider it, you realize the idea itself is absurd. If I am coerced, even by God, then I am not free and any freedom offered is a lie. Jesus provides the door, the gate, the way, and the power of true freedom to all who will take up their cross and follow him.

But we have to decide that we want to be free.


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.


For the Life of the World 1

Posted: October 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 1

I’ve heard about For the Life of the World by Father Alexander Schmemann off and on for several years now. However, the convergence of several events have now led me to buy it and begin reading it myself. First, Deacon Michael Hyatt is teaching through it with his class each Sunday this fall, which is then distributed through his podcast, At the Intersection of East and West, a podcast I’ve followed since he started it. Second, I received a $10 Amazon gift certificate for participating in some survey. Third, I had to place an order for Catching Fire (the sequel to Hunger Games) for my daughter and, well, who can buy just one book at a time? 😉

So, this series will be interspersed within whatever other series I am doing more or less weekly as I intend to read through the book at the same pace as Deacon Hyatt’s class. I’ll write my posts on each chapter after reading the chapter and listening to the podcast. Today’s post is on the first chapter of the book, which describes its philosophical goals. The podcasts for this chapter spanned two weeks and I do recommend listening to them both. You’ll probably get more from Deacon Hyatt than you will from me anyway.

Fr. Schmemann opens his book by quoting the German materialist, Feuerbach, “Man is what he eats.” And he affirms that as a true statement, though not at all in the way that Feuerbach intended. Man is what he eats, but that does not reduce reality to the merely material. Rather, it points to the seamless unity of the physical and the spiritual.

In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.

Today many, especially in Western Christianity, have attempted to separate reality in the world of the religious life and the world of the profane, the ordinary, or the secular life. The problem is that such a dualism is neither Christian nor even particularly human. I must confess that I don’t understand this tendency among my fellow Protestants. I have always sought a path toward a unified reality. Now, that does not necessarily mean the fully embodied spirituality of Christianity. I was not uncomfortable with the fundamental Hindu perspective of the material reality as maya or illusion. The Christian fights or should fight to unify the totality of life, to have the fullness of life, but Fr. Schmemann asks an intriguing question:

What is the life of life itself?

Unless we answer that question properly, we will never move beyond the dichotomy that seems to haunt American Christianity. Whether trying to spiritualize our life or secularize our religion we are still approaching them as two different and separate things. They are not.

God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God.

Fr. Schmemann coins a descriptive for man. Whatever else we may be called ( e.g. homo sapiens, homo faber), we are first and foremost homo adorans.

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.

It is only as we understand that reality that story of the Fall can even begin to make sense. The story, of course, revolves around food. That is no accident. But more than that, it is not about choosing to obey or disobey some arbitrary rule. It cuts right to the heart of who and what we were created to be.

Not given, not blessed by God, it (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to return God’s love.

It is the ultimate expression of materialistic love, the love of the material in and for itself and for what it can provide me. We have done it so long and so consistently that it has come to seem normal. We don’t give thanks. We don’t bless the material creation for God. “It seems natural not to be eucharistic.” Indeed.

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. … For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. … For “the wages of sin is death.” The life man chose was only the appearance of life. … He ceased to be the priest of the world and became its slave.

That is, of course, the great irony. Our life is hid in Christ with God. Our life was to bless God and lift up his creation to him in thanksgiving. We have no life apart from God, so when we embrace that which is not God, we ultimately embrace death. In trying to control our world (and even ourselves) we become slaves to the world in and through our passions. I actually have a greater appreciation for Buddhism since I became Christian than I did before I was Christian. There is much truth to their teaching that our passions enslave us. There are worse things than to strive to become dispassionate, though the Christian approach is, ultimately, much different than the Buddhist path.

In our perspective, however, the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. … The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into “life in God,” filled with meaning and spirit.

The above is an extremely dense idea, but if you can begin to see it, you’ll begin to perceive the richness of creation and the depth of our distortion of it. This dualism, this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, is in and of itself the very substance of our fall. Every time we view the world through this lens, every time we act on these assumption, we participate in the fall and destruction of creation, even if what we actually do appears on the surface to be “good“. When we live and act within this dualism, we are deepening the shadow over our world. It’s into this darkness that God acted decisively: He sent light.

It is within the context of these thoughts that Fr. Schmemann makes a statement about Christianity not being a religion in the traditional sense of the word in a way that actually made sense to me. (I’ve heard similar statements in the past in a Protestant context, but I could never get them to add up.) I’ll draw a number of his phrases together here, but to really grasp what he’s saying, you probably need to read the entirety of the chapter.

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. … Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. … He (Christ) has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from “religion” in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. … And in Him (Christ) was the end of “religion,” because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion — was restored to man.

Within that context he discusses the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the discussion about temple that she had with Jesus. Jesus affirmed that the Jews at that time knew the truth and worshiped in the right location. But he told her that time was coming to an end. Christians and Christianity have never been tied to a particular place, to a particular time, to a particular building in our worship. We sacramentalize all of creation.

Now, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with building places, even beautiful places, with ornate liturgy, or with any of the rest of a fully embodied spirituality. There is not and never has been. Contrary to the beliefs of many of my fellow Baptists, Christianity has no history of congregational, non-liturgical worship until they created it from their own imaginations in the wake of what is called the Great Reformation. Their imagined first century church never existed historically in the manner many of them envision.

But as Christians, we are not tied to any one place, any one nation, any one ethnicity, or any one language in our worship. All creation is our temple as we offer it back to God in thanksgiving.


On the Incarnation of the Word 16 – Was the Cross the Sole Aim of Christ’s Birth?

Posted: September 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 16 – Was the Cross the Sole Aim of Christ’s Birth?

This section of On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius is a very short one, but I think critical for us today. I very much recommend that you read the entire section several times and reflect on it. It seems to me that some segments of modern Western Christianity have so emphasized the Cross that the life of Jesus simply becomes a preparation for it and the Resurrection is reduced to little more than an afterthought.

I was particularly struck by this fact some years ago when the SBTC Texan, the newspaper for our state convention, published a series of articles defending and discussing the Resurrection. They all strongly defended the historicity of the Resurrection and clearly held it to be important. However, when they tried to express why it was so important, the best that anyone could say was that it proved that the Father accepted the Son’s payment for our sins on the Cross.

It was one of those moments of crystalline clarity for me. I had been a part of this group of Christians for more than a decade and I had never until that moment really begun to understand how they perceived Christ. I thought I had, of course. But I realized then that I really hadn’t, after all.

In all of the ancient writings, as in Scripture, you will rarely ever find the Crucifixion separated from the Resurrection. If you’ve been reading the posts on my blog where we’ve been working through some of them, perhaps you’ve noticed that. Without the Resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth was simply another first century failed Messiah wannabe. In this section, however, Athanasius points out that we also can’t reduce the work of Christ to simply his death and resurrection.

Now for this cause, also, He did not immediately upon His coming accomplish His sacrifice on behalf of all, by offering His body to death and raising it again, for by this means He would have made Himself invisible. But He made Himself visible enough by what He did, abiding in it, and doing such works, and shewing such signs, as made Him known no longer as Man, but as God the Word.

When you look at it that way, it’s obvious. Of course, in one sense the Word did become flesh to die. That is he became fully human in every way and inherited the fullness of our mortal nature. At the same time, though, he joined it to the divine nature which could not die. And in the heart of that paradox, he defeated death on behalf of all mankind.

However, that was only part of his work. As Jesus said, he came to make the unknowable God known to us. In him, we know and experience the fullness of God. We are able to participate in the life of God. We can be one with God and with each other. We can know true communion. So Jesus also came to make God known in the only way we could know him.

For by the Word revealing Himself everywhere, both above and beneath, and in the depth and in the breadth—above, in the creation; beneath, in becoming man; in the depth, in Hades; and in the breadth, in the world—all things have been filled with the knowledge of God.

When we try to reduce the work of Christ to something simple which we can rationally grasp in its entirety, we render it meaningless. When we reduce the Incarnation of the Word to a single task, whatever that task might be, we strip it of its transcendence and mystery. The Incarnation transformed all creation in ways that go beyond any words we might use.

Christ was born to live, to die, and to rise uncorrupted and incorruptible from the grave. No single act is of greater purpose or necessity than the other. It is in the fullness of Christ that we find salvation. Had Christ not filled creation in a new way in the Incarnation, had he not made himself known to us through our senses, had he not recreated us as human beings in his death and resurrection, Pentecost could not have happened. Man has been united to God in Christ, thus God can particularly indwell man in the fullness of the Spirit through Christ without consuming us. (Remember, our God is a consuming fire.) And through the physical body and blood of Christ, we know the unknowable God.

Is your mind blown yet?


The Didache 14 – No Schisms

Posted: June 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 14 – No Schisms

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

Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace. Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether or not it shall be.

Division here, of course, means schism. The Teaching simply echoes Jesus, Paul, John, James, and Peter. Somehow Protestants in general, and Baptists in particular, proclaim a theoretical idea that Christian faith should be shaped first by the Holy Scriptures even as they completely ignore one of the central tenets of what we call the New Testament. How bizarre is that?

Historically, schisms were rare and treated seriously. Most schisms were either healed or the schismatic sects died off. Before the Reformation there were really only three enduring schisms in the Church, mostly defined by geography and a healthy dose of local politics at the time of the schism. Those three are the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (often improperly called monophysite, but actually miaphysite), the Chalcedonian Orthodox (often called “Greek” regardless of actual ethnicity) , and the Roman Catholic Church. That was it.

Enter the Reformation.

According to Pew Research, we now have something over thirty thousand identifiable sects, denominations, or more accurately, schisms – divisions in the church. It is routine for even a very small town to have at leasts tens of different types or flavors of “Christian” from which the discerning Christian spiritual consumer can choose. Larger cities will have hundreds if not thousands of choices. Where I live, there is no Church of Pflugerville. There are instead myriad “churches”. Since Jesus said that people would know and accept that he was Lord because of our love and our unity, it’s little wonder that Western Christianity is withering on the vine. Heck, I’m instinctually pluralist and still like aspects of Hinduism’s inclusive nature and I’m even turned off by the present day divisiveness of Christianity. If Protestantism has offered anything else of enduring value, I’m having a hard time seeing it.

The next sentence is one of those tensions in Christianity. We are not the final judge. We can never judge someone’s salvation. And really we can’t judge anyone’s heart. When we judge, we will be held to the same standard. And woe to us when we become the hypocrite or when we judge ourselves more highly than any other. Nevertheless, we are not just called, but actually commanded to love. And in order to love, we must judge what action would be for the good of the beloved. And sometimes the most loving thing we can do is reprove another. When we do, as James points out, we must be no respecters of person, of wealth, or of power. And we should proceed trembling, for we are treading on the most dangerous of soils for our own salvation.

And we must not be undecided. That’s probably the hardest for me. I tend to doubt much. I live within the whirlwind of deconstruction. Every belief I hold, every decision I make, every action I take is subjected to those forces. And a lot of my rationales fall apart. Jesus has held so far. If anything, he has become more real, more present, and more solid the longer I’ve tried to follow him. I act decisively at times. But I always do so in the recognition that my certainty is probably temporary and how I perceive this moment will probably change. And I know how limited my understanding in any given moment truly is. This one is hard. Really hard.


Mercy and Justice

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

More on the “Justice” of God

I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac the Syrian and others like him even before I had heard of Orthodoxy. It’s probably one of the things that always made me such a poor evangelical (and frankly, a poor Western Christian). But I was thirsty to know more about this God I had encountered and couldn’t shake. I read Scripture, but the more modern voices I encountered mostly did not match the things I saw in the Holy Scriptures or the God who had met me. The ancient authors I read more often did. I have not read Abba Ammonas before, but the short snippet makes me want to track down more by him.

I echo what Father Stephen says in his opening paragraph. I’ve often said that Western Christianity attributes a problem with forgiveness to God. The way he puts it might be better. Western Christianity speaks as though God’s justice constrains God. I’ve never understood how anyone could immerse themselves in the story of God and walk away with anything other than a picture of a God overflowing with mercy, forgiveness, and love. Even Jonah understood that much about God. It pissed him off royally. He didn’t like it one bit. But he understood God. It’s a struggle in the West to find voices that even seem to know God at all.

God doesn’t achieve justice by punishing the evildoer. He achieves justice by bringing good from the evil, by ultimately undoing the wrong, and, if at possible, by saving both the victim and the evildoer through his boundless mercy and love. St. Isaac could not imagine that any human being could become so hardened that they could resist the love of God forever. I am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. I fear that human beings can so distort themselves that they can trap themselves in a state unable to ever experience the light and love of God as anything but searing fire. But I hope St. Isaac is right.

In some ways I’m reminded of the scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? where Mrs. Prentice tells Matt Drayton this.

I believe that men grow old. And when the — when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all. Forget what true passion is. If you ever felt what my son feels for your daughter, you’ve forgotten everything about it.

My husband too.

You knew once, but that was a long time ago. Now the two of you don’t know.

And the strange thing, for your wife and me, is that you don’t even remember.

If you did how could you do what you are doing?

That’s what Western Christianity feels like to me these days. They knew about the love and mercy of God once upon a time. But now they don’t even remember. If they did, how could they do and say the things they do — about God and about other human beings? Eastern Christianity is like the wives. It remembers. It has never forgotten.

I strongly agree with Father Stephen’s closing statement in the first post. When somebody can show me where God’s mercy ends, I’ll be willing to consider where something else — anything else — begins. Until then, let’s talk about his mercy, pray for his mercy, live within his mercy, and live out his mercy to others.

If anything, Father Stephen’s followup post strikes even closer to home. Those who know me at all well know that I and those I love have experienced “injustice” — even evil. Ultimately, the cry for “justice”, where it is not merely a code word for revenge, is a deep cry from the depth of my being for the evil to have never happened. That is the only true justice.

But we desire justice only for others. For ourselves, if we are honest, we desire mercy. We not believe we will receive mercy, but it is what we desire. If God is willing to have mercy on us, how we can possibly believe his mercy toward anyone else is limited in any way? We are all hypocrites of the worst sort. We are the whitewashed tombs.

And yet God loves us.

That is the mystery at the center of reality.


The Shack

Posted: May 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Shack

Yes, I’m another Johnny-come-lately with this review of The Shack. In my defense, I only recently read the book and had not originally planned on reading it at all. My last attempt to delve into modern Christian fiction with the Left Behind genre ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth as that entire perspective formed little more than cotton candy in that deconstructive whirlwind I call a mind. I have been tempted to give Doystoyevsky another try now that I have a more Christian perspective, but that’s been the extent of my interest in Christian fiction these days. However, when a mostly Buddhist friend of ours bought the book for my wife and told her that the book helped her understand what Christians see in their God, I knew resistance was futile. 😉

From a literary perspective it was an easy read with a fairly gripping story and flow. Once you start reading it, you want to keep reading through to the conclusion. It’s a shame that the publishers gave the book a pass. I can see many areas where a good editor could have made significant contributions tightening the storyline and improving some of the places where the prose could be better. It’s not at all bad as written, but the editorial process could have tightened up its weak spots. There were a few instances where the prose made me wince, but others have already mentioned them. There’s no need to rehash them here. And there weren’t really that many of them.

From a theological perspective, The Shack necessarily suffers from the inherent limitation that any allegory, any description, any artistic work has when attempting to portray an ultimately transcendent God. With that said, I found the book did a surprisingly good job, much better than I expected. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen focused on things like portraying the Father as a grandmotherly black woman for much of the book or the Holy Spirit as an asian woman also for much of the book. Honestly, there is nothing any more heretical or “wrong” about doing that than there is in portraying the Father as an old man with a long flowing white beard. They are anthropomorphisms, but we cannot actually think about God without anthropomorphizing him to some extent. As long as we are aware that that’s what we’re doing and that our effort is inherently limited and finite and thus flawed it’s really not a problem. God shows up to the protagonist as a woman because he has issues with the idea of “Father”. There’s nothing wrong with that idea. The bible is full of ways God is constantly accommodating our limitations and weaknesses.The fact that the manifestations are God accommodating the protagonist is made clear not only in the dialogue of the novel, but by the Father and the Spirit taking alternate forms over the course of the novel.

I most enjoyed the author’s effort to deconstruct the image of an angry God which has so dominated the West these past thousand years. He captured nicely the impassability of God’s love. God is love and we are his ‘very good’ creation. We have no language for that love. Everything we can say is necessarily inadequate. Nevertheless, the simple statement by ‘Poppa’ approaches the essential nature. “I am especially fond of you.” How true.

I also appreciated the manner in which the book captured the participation of the entire Trinity in the work of redemption on and through the Cross and the Resurrection. Too often in the West, the Trinity has been pictured at odds with each other during the Cross rather than acting in perfect unity.

I noted the attempt to portray the perichoretic nature of the Trinity. I know it’s extremely difficult to ever adequately portray the utterly self-sufficient, inter-penetrating, and mutually indwelling relational life of the Trinity. Nevertheless, I felt the attempt fell flat. I’m not sure, if you were unfamiliar with the underlying theology, that it would even be decipherable. That part gets an A for effort, but at best a C in execution.

The theodicy in the book was adequate. It was certainly better than you’ll get from some people, such as Piper, today. I could nitpick, but so many in our culture have heard such awful portrayals of God, they probably need the simplest window through which to begin to see the reality.

I was somewhat disappointed in the portrayal of Jesus. The book captured some of the implications for God of joining the human and divine natures. But I think the flip side of that equation got short shrift. It is through the Incarnation that human nature is healed. And it is through the union of the two natures of Jesus and only through that union that we are able to participate in the life of God. I don’t think the book did enough to bring that into the story. And without it, the story was less than it could have been.

I recognize that the lens through which this story was told was the lens of a particular individual. As such, it created an essentially individualistic framework. Nevertheless, it felt like the community of true human beings and our corporate effort was severely under-represented in the novel. That may be due as much to the way the story is embedded in our individualistic North American culture as to any intended or unintended statement by the author. Nevertheless, I wish more of the shared human nature and story had found its way into the story.

All in all, this is a novel that provides a better picture of God than much of what you’ll find in Western Christianity in a form that is accessible to everyone. Quibbles aside, there is much to be said for that. It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.


Beyond Justification 6 – What about assurance?

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 6 – What about assurance?

This will likely be the last post in this series. In it I want to explore something that is not actually a question or concern of mine, but which is a concern I’ve heard repeatedly expressed by a wide variety of people in various settings throughout my last decade and a half associated with Christianity. The question sometimes goes under the label “assurance of salvation”. At its core, it seems to be a question about how one knows with certainty that you are “saved”. And it seems to carry with it a great deal of stress for what seems to me to be many people if anything said about salvation threatens the basis for that certainty. The attentive will have noticed quite a few “seems” and similar qualifiers in this paragraph. That’s because the entire mindset that seems to be required to raise this as an issue is foreign to me. As such, it’s certainly very possible that some of the things I say will be off-base to one degree or another. Feel free to correct me where you believe I’ve misunderstood the concern.

By any measure, this is a pretty modern concern in any faith, not just Christianity. By and large, the idea that one could somehow manage any god so as to be absolutely certain of a given outcome seems strange. My guess is that as people came to believe they could take certain things discovered by modern science with absolute certainty (an idea I would question in all but relatively simple matters) they looked for the same thing from their faith. Also, given that Western Christianity largely reduced salvation to a juridical declaration, a verdict if you will, of guilty or not guilty, it may have seemed possible to know the verdict of the judge in advance. I will note that it strikes me as a little presumptuous, even under this reduced vision of salvation, to say that you know with certainty the verdict a judge will pronounce before the judge has actually made that pronouncement. But I’m sure those are my postmodern sensibilities intruding. 😉

However, given that salvation is truly defined in terms of relationship and orientation, there is little in the way of this forensic certainty while you are on the journey. I do not know my future. I do know that in the past I have moved both toward worshiping the God made known in Jesus and away from him, often deliberately following other spiritual paths. Since it is clear from our scriptures that, while our bodies will be made new and there will be an act of new creation that renews our identity, we will still be continuous with the person we have shaped ourselves to be in this life. If I turned from Christianity today and embraced a path worshiping Brahman (or perhaps a Deva such as Vishnu) in what sense would I ultimately necessarily still be shaped as a human being able to stand in the uncreated light of the love of the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth? I don’t anticipate making such a turn again, but then twenty years ago I never expected to be Christian. For good or ill, my ongoing life as my body sleeps for a time will be in some sense continuous with my life now. I cannot be one person now and some entirely different person then.

Does that mean that we, as Christians, have no assurance? Nonsense! We have the greatest assurance possible. We have God himself making his life a part of our lives, a part of who we are. He is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. And he is constantly working to relate to us. We have the God who loves us. Intimately.

But that is not some forensic certainty tied to some particular mental assent we may or may not have made to some set of ideas at some particular point in space and time. It’s the sort of certainty we develop in relationship. Here is the analogy in the terms in which I approach this question.

I know my wife loves me. I can’t prove that my wife loves me in the sort of way that some want to pin down God’s judgment of their lives. Heck, I can’t prove my wife’s love in any objective terms at all. But I have great assurance about her love. How?

Time together.

We have spent two decades now together with many more hopefully on the horizon. We have raised children. We’ve endured legal battles and extreme financial difficulties. We’ve had children doing great and we’ve had children struggling. We’ve been with each through all sorts of health issues. We share so much and are tied in so many ways that I have no doubt she loves me.

That’s the same sort of assurance I have that God loves me. Ours has not always been an easy path. We haven’t necessarily seen eye to eye (usually because I haven’t really understood him). But I look back and see all the love and care he has lavished on my life. I see in hindsight where he was at work to bring good even out of great evil over the course of my life. I trust him. How could I not? Can I prove it? No. Could I be mistaken? I suppose. But I don’t believe I am. I’m confident that he loves me.

And that’s the best answer I can give to the question of assurance. If you aren’t certain about God, practice a rule of life that helps you spend time with him, get to know him, relate to him. He’s a good God overflowing with love, kindness, and mercy.

Love God. Love others.

I wager you’ll find by living those two things out all the assurance you need.


Beyond Justification 2 – What does it mean to be human?

Posted: May 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The article that spurred this series, Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective, immediately caught my attention in its opening paragraph with the sentence:

Orthodox in general have never quite understood what all the fuss was about to begin with.

That precisely captures my state of confusion ever since my conversion to Christianity. It has seemed like the foremost question that most have had has been something along the lines of: Am I (or insert person of concern) in with God or am I out? The entire thing seems to revolve around the question of what happens to you when you die. Some might think that’s an overstatement or caricature, but the Southern Baptist Convention’s primary “evangelistic” program is predicated entirely on that idea. Hardly anyone on the ‘inside’ even seems to find it bizarre. Given that my pre-conversion belief about the afterlife tended toward a belief in the transmigration of souls (reincarnation), concern about some “christian” idea of heaven and hell had absolutely nothing to do with my ultimate conversion to the Christian faith. So I never understood the huge fuss over any of the various ideas about what Paul meant by the term “righteousness” or “justification” (same Greek word, I gather).

To the Orthodox, the Western Church’s convulsions over the nature of justification, and particularly the relationship between faith and works, are largely incomprehensible because the presuppositions underlying the debates are often alien to the Eastern Christian mind. The Christian East espouses a different theological anthropology from most of Western Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – especially with respect to two elements of fallen human nature: original guilt and free will. The differences in these two anthropological concepts, in turn, contribute to differing soteriological understandings of, respectively, how Jesus Christ saves us (that is, what salvation means) and how we appropriate the salvation offered in Christ.

The article above starts in the right place. The Latin and later Western Church’s obsession with justification does seem to flow from its idea of inherited guilt, which was probably drawn from its early neo-platonic influences along with a mistranslation of the Greek text into Latin. I suppose if you believe you were born ‘guilty’ and powerless to do anything at all about it, you might be concerned with exactly how you get to be ‘not guilty’. Even though I did not realize for more than a decade that my belief was the normative Eastern Christian belief, I never for one moment accepted the idea that guilt could somehow be inherited unless one also accepted the idea of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true then I could accept that a soul’s accumulated karma stays with it. But that is not the Christian story. Our soul in Christian parlance consists of our body and our spirit together and intertwined. There is no such thing as the eternality of the soul. We are created beings and did not exist before we were created. Our being is tied to these bodies. We have no natural existence separated from our body. And within that framework, only a capricious God would create a human being guilty.

I’m not entirely sure why it was that pretty much from the time of my conversion onward, I developed something more akin to what the article calls “the Eastern Christian mind” rather than the Western one. Other than my patristic readings, all things Christian which I encountered directly were distinctly Western. I do, for instance, deeply appreciate the way St. John Chrysostom describes baptism, but his teaching conflicts with almost all things Western..

Although many men think that the only gift [baptism] confers is the remission of sins, we have counted its honors to the number of ten. It is on this account that we baptize even infants, although they are sinless, that they may be given the further gifts of sanctification, justice, filial adoption, and inheritance, that they may be brothers and members of Christ, and become dwelling places of the Spirit.

Of course, modern Baptists (and really virtually all evangelicals) don’t believe that baptism actually confers anything whatsoever. I am probably foolish and even a fool in many ways, but that always seemed like a particularly foolish belief to me. Zwingli strongly influences much of the branch of Christianity that tends to call itself evangelical today even if they don’t even realize that’s who they follow. But I always understood that the things we do with our bodies and in the physical or material realm matter spiritually even when I wasn’t Christian. If anything, Christianity has deepened and strengthened that understanding. Zwingli believed what he did at least in part because he did not believe the material creation could house things of spiritual value. In his eyes the bread and wine could be nothing more. Water was just water. This belief approaches in some ways a denial of the Incarnation. It is certainly a denial that God is everywhere present and filling all things and that he can and does particularly infuse the material creation at times for our spiritual benefit and healing.

In addition to and connected with the idea of inherited guilt, the West simultaneously developed the idea that we had lost the ability to freely choose God. Even in the Roman Catholic understanding, Lutheran understanding, or Arminian Reformed understanding, which allow for and even require some activity of our will, our will is only able to choose God because of this odd thing often called prevenient grace. Those who lean more toward Calvin on the Reformed side tend to deny the existence of any will on our part at all. Whatever free will humans may have been created with was obliterated in the Fall. I know that Protestants don’t tend to actually study the ecumenical councils of the first millenium, but such statements are actually a denial of the sixth council. Since that has long been one of the councils that has meant the most to me, I appreciate the way the article brings that out. I will also point out that I’ve always understood grace as it’s described on the Christian text as describing the action of God. To say that we receive grace is to say that we receive God.

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.

That is not to say that people cannot come to set their will in direct opposition to God. They can and sometimes do. But that is not the primary manifestation of sin. That certainly better captures both my personal experience in my lengthy journey to Christianity and what I perceive with many of the people around me.

So we are guilty only for what we have personally done and it is an integral part of the image we bear that we have the will to choose what we do and what we worship. Our will has been damaged and is too often subject to our passions just as the image we bear is tarnished. But it is that damaged will which Christ assumed in order to redeem it in the same way that he assumed our mortal nature in order to free us from death. It seems to me that if you get these wrong, you badly miss the mark about what it means to be human.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue my reflections on this article.