Celiac & Depression

Posted: May 31st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I found this video by a Dr. Vikki Peterson interesting and helpful. As I mentioned in my post explaining celiac disease, as an autoimmune disease, it can damage your nervous system. If it does, it can produce a host of different symptoms up to and including altering the chemical balance in your brain leading to clinical depression. As I’ve looked through the list or neurological symptoms I’ve realized that though I never had severe gastrointestinal problems like some people, I have had the neurological symptoms for years, up to and including a bout with depression. Other nervous system symptoms I’ve had include numbness and tingling in extremities, periods of mental fogginess, unexplained irritability, sharp pain in different locations/muscles that would show up for no reason, last usually for hours, and then fade away. For me, the most significant short-term benefit of going gluten free has been that those symptoms are either gone completely or are going away.


What Is Celiac Disease?

Posted: May 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Update 10/12/2009: The Gluten-Free Doctor has posted just about as comprehensive a list as I can imagine of the possible symptoms of celiac disease.

Given that I often have and will refer to celiac disease on this blog, I realized I should write a post that explains the disease. I know that prior to my diagnosis I had a number of misconceptions and it’s likely, if you’ve heard of the disease at all, that you do as well. Everything I write here is based on my best current understanding, but that certainly doesn’t mean there won’t be some errors in what I write. As I discover any potential errors, I will update this post so it remains as accurate as I can make it. There are actually a variety of terms used to refer to celiac and “celiac” is not actually the most medically accurate. However, it is the common term and the one I will use on this blog, so I won’t bother going through all the possibilities.

First, I think I need to clarify what celiac is not, since this is the area where I was most confused prior to my own diagnosis with the disease. Celiac is not an allergy nor is it an intolerance. An allergic reaction, for instance to wheat, is your body’s mistaken immune system response to a substance that is actually harmless. Your body creates antibodies that attach themselves to the molecules of the substance and then floods your system with histamines to cause other cells to attack the substance. An allergic reaction can create a wide array of symptoms, but subsides when the allergen is removed or antihistamines take effect. As long as you stay away from the allergen there is no further long term effect. The amount of allergen that triggers an allergic reaction will also vary from individual to individual and may change over time. It is even possible for people, especially children, to grow out of an allergy.

A food intolerance (gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, etc.) occurs when your body is unable to metabolize a particular food. Typically a food intolerance will produce a lot of gastrointestinal symptoms, but as long as you don’t eat the food in question you’re fine. Even if you do eat the food in question, you only have to deal with the immediate short-term result of your decision or mistake.

Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disease.  If you aren’t familiar with that category of disease, that means that your body’s immune system inappropriately attacks itself. With celiac, we know that the inappropriate immune system response is a response to gliadan, a protein in the gluten molecule which is found in wheat, barley, and rye (and cross-breeds and other related grains). We do not know what activates the disease in those with the appropriate genetic makeup. From what I have read, it appears that the disease will never activate in about one-third of those with the genetic markers. And there is apparently no way to predict the age at which it will activate in those who have it. This is actually something of a blessing, though. As far as I can tell, this is the only autoimmune disease with which we actually know the trigger for the inappropriate immune system response. With celiac, if you remove gluten, you send the disease into full remission.

The direct effect of celiac is that your immune system attacks and damages the villi in the small intestine that have absorbed the gluten you’ve ingested. The villi are tiny hair-like tissues (described as something like a shag carpet in the intestine) that absorb the nutrients from the food we ingest. As they are blunted and flattened, your small intestine loses its ability to absorb nutrients. Over time, that will lead to the malabsorption of food and nutritional deficiencies. I know I have struggled with calcium deficiencies in the past, in retrospect probably as a result of celiac disease. Despite both medication and altering my diet, I’ve also remained severely deficient in the “good” cholesterol, again likely as a result of celiac. It was when I became anemic, though, something which is highly unusual in an otherwise fairly healthy middle-aged male, that the warning flags went off for my physician and the sequence of events that led to my diagnosis (fortunately only one month later) began. In my case, when the EGD and endoscopy were done, the first part of my small intestine looked completely pink and smooth like tiles, not like a shag carpet at all. Clearly, I had been suffering from celiac for a long time, probably a decade or more.

However, that is not the end of it. Since celiac is an autoimmune disease, it also does not respond immediately to the removal of gluten from your diet. Most people begin to feel better in days or weeks, and I have begun to feel better in areas unrelated to digestion. However, it usually takes about six months for your immune system to return to normal as determined by blood tests. And it takes from six months to two years for the damage to the small intestine to heal. Basically you stop eating all gluten and in a few weeks you’ll begin to feel better. Maybe in a year you’ll be well. That aspect of the disease is a little frustrating to someone like me who, at the time of this writing, is still in the early stages of recovery.

Also since it is an autoimmune disease, if someone with celiac does not stop eating all gluten they have an increased likelihood that their malfunctioning immune system will trigger another autoimmune disease such lupus, thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, liver diseases, or rheumatoid arthritis. Celiacs also have an elevated risk of developing gastrointestinal cancers. Celiac may also cause neurological damage and is hereditary. It’s a nasty disease and the consumption of as little as an eighth of a teaspoon of gluten (1/1000 of a slice of bread) is sufficient to keep it active if you continue to ingest that small amount each day or even several days a week. The occasional accidental ingestion of a small dose, which will happen despite your best efforts, won’t significantly affect the health of most people. It’s not like a severe allergy where even a tiny exposure can cause shock and death. But it is imperative that any ongoing exposure to gluten be eliminated.

Recent rigorous clinical studies have demonstrated that 1 out of every 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease. It is hereditary, so first degree relatives of a celiac are much more likely, about 1 in 22, to have the disease. That makes it comparable to type 1 diabetes in prevalence. However, the vast majority of those with celiac, perhaps as many as 90% are currently undiagnosed. Why? Because until things get really bad, for a lot of people celiac doesn’t have a lot of clear and overt symptoms. (And there is still a fair level of ignorance or misinformation in the medical community as well.) That was certainly true for me. Looking back, my digestion has probably been a little off for a long time, but no serious pain or anything that pushed me to think something was wrong. I  have had a lot of symptoms that are not digestive tract issues but which are directly related to celiac. I just didn’t know the various disparate symptoms were even related to each other.

This is a list of some of the symptoms that could indicate celiac disease:

  • anemia
  • autoimmune disorders
  • behavioral changes (think depression, mental fogginess, irritability, inability to concentrate, etc.)
  • bloating and gas or abdominal distention
  • bone or joint pain
  • changes in appetite
  • chronic diarrhea
  • colitis
  • collagen vascular disease
  • constipation
  • dermatitis herpetiformis (skin rash)
  • delayed growth in children and delayed onset of puberty
  • dizziness
  • easy bruising
  • failure to thrive in infancy
  • fatigue and lethargy
  • fibromyalgia
  • hair loss
  • headaches
  • hypoglycemia
  • hyposplenism
  • increased risk of infections
  • infertility and miscarriage
  • iron deficiency
  • irregular or speedy heartbeat
  • lactose intolerance
  • liver disease
  • lupus
  • lymphoma
  • malnutrition
  • missed menstrual periods
  • mental fogginess
  • muscle cramps
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • neurological problems (schizophrenia, ataxia, epilepsy, etc.)
  • nosebleeds
  • osteoporosis or esoteopenia
  • pale, foul-smelling, bulky, and/or fatty stools that float
  • pale skin
  • seizures
  • short stature
  • shortness of breath
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • some intestinal cancers
  • thyroid disease
  • tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
  • tooth discoloration or dental enamel defects/loss.
  • type 1 diabetes
  • ulcers inside the mouth
  • vitamin or mineral deficiency
  • weight loss or weight gain

There are now blood tests that will detect the antibodies (and probably other markers – I haven’t studied the details of the three blood tests in the panel) associated with celiac disease that can be used to screen for the disease and to monitor progress on a gluten free diet post-diagnosis. An endoscopy of the upper portion of the small intestine remains the certain form of diagnosis. The damage to the villi is not always visually evident like the damage to mine was, particularly if the person has not had the disease for very long. But it will show up in the biopsy.

That’s a quick intro to celiac disease based on what I currently understand about the disease. For a more detailed look into the history of celiac disease, recent studies and developments, and future research directions, watch the following presentation by Alessio Fasano, MD, the founder of the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQHiBC_O9Y4

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.


You Are What You Eat

Posted: May 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on You Are What You Eat

You are what you eat.

As I adapt to life with celiac, I’ve noticed that every food I eat seems to somehow be in sharper focus than it was in the past. I am more acutely aware of the nature and quality of every morsel I place in my mouth. I’m aware that what I eat truly affects me to my core. As I reflect on this awareness I realize that this is true of all of us. At a very basic level, we actually do become what we eat. As we incorporate the food we consume into our body, we are simultaneously changed be it, for good or ill. I recently heard a story on NPR that exposed that reality. (The first is the shorter segment on All Things Considered. The second is the longer interview on Fresh Air.)  Take a moment to listen to the reports.

Why Do We Overeat?
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103862714

Mind Over (Food) Matter: Combating ‘Overeating’
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104068820

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler has studied the food we eat, even dumpster diving behind restaurants, for clues to why we overeat. He has discovered that the food and presentation is designed to stimulate our hunger, to keep our bodies in a stimulated state. The more we consume, the more we desire to consume. The physical stimulus of fat, sugar, and salt actually conditions our minds, especially when melded with appealing visuals.  I believe this is a facet of the same reality I am discovering through celiac. We are not disconnected or separated from our bodies. As we eat, we are incorporating matter into our bodies. What and how we eat impacts all of us.

In this instance, the folk wisdom is right. You are what you eat.

That’s just particularly true for me. I know that a certain ubiquitous ingredient will poison rather than nourish me. But as I consider the above stories and survey my nation, is that not true of us all? Perhaps it’s not as clearly or sharply defined as it has become for me. But if we were really drawing nourishment at a deep level from what we eat, it seems to me that we would all be healthier than we are.

And I wonder if we still fasted together as Christians if we would not share some level of this awareness. Would fasting bring the connection between what we eat and who we are into sharper focus, especially as lived and experienced the fast as a community? Is this not at the heart of Christianity? We ritually eat the body and drink the blood of our Lord. You don’t get any more visceral than that. We consume God in order to transform our being. We swallow God in order to digest life.

Maybe it really does matter what we eat and how we eat it?


The Great Emergence

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I love listening to Phyllis Tickle. I’ve listened to her speak a number of times over the years (via mp3) and have loved every instance. I believe The Great Emergence is the first book by her I’ve read, though I do have The Words of Jesus waiting on my shelf. I also realize that everyone under the sun has already read and reviewed this book. I’m a latecomer. It took me a while to buy it and then with this minor matter of a celiac diagnosis, my reading has fallen behind the curve lately. 😉

With this particular book, I find myself in the odd position of wanting to like the book more than I actually did. Instead I found it something of a mixed bag. I do think she accurately captures the spirit of the present age and the tension within which we all live in the West and particularly in the US. Those are the parts of the book I found myself almost cheering along with. On the other hand, I found the historical perspective a bit light and the whole 500 year cycle somewhat contrived. Those were probably my least favorite parts of the book.

The section of the book that tried to tie together a whole host of disparate historical events while leaving out many significant realities of the era in order to create a “crisis” around 500-600 CE similar to that which occurred in the Great Schism and the Reformation was the least compelling. I have the disadvantage, I think, of a lot of familiarity with both the imperial (and contra-imperial) history and the Christian history of that era. I just don’t see the same sort of either societal or Christian crisis at that point in time, certainly not working in conjunction. Yes, the West did have some pretty serious societal issues at that time and ongoing. But that was not mirrored in the Christian schism. At that point in time, the See of Rome, largely consumed by those other societal issues, pretty much acted in conjunction with the great Sees of what is known now as Orthodoxy. The schism had as much to do with the politics of the Roman Empire, in its capitol of Constantinople, and with misunderstandings over the actual Greek meanings of the words used. The Armenian state, for example, was caught in a war against Persia at the time and the bishops of its church were unable to attend the council. When they received the council’s results in writing later, they interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism and rejected it accordingly. The monophysite heresy did largely die out over time and never took permanent hold in either the Chalcedonian or non-Chalcedonian churches. The Oriental Orthodox church is not monophysite, nor are they continuing something older or even different than Orthodoxy. Rather their theology is best understood as miaphysite, which is theologically consistent with Chalcedon though it uses different language.

I think there is a deeper misunderstanding of the first thousand years of Christianity embedded within these issues. Toward the end of the book, Phyllis Tickle writes of the impact of Constantine in a way that simply does not fit the historical realities of the time. Further, she seems to attribute the renewed rise of gnosticism, the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideas, the rise of the image of an angry God, and the loss of a Jewish character to Christianity to Constantine rather than to the era of the Great Schism, which is when it actually happened in the West. I don’t disagree with the charges she raises, but they are largely exactly the same charges the Eastern Church has raised against the Western Church when it has been able to interact and speak at all between Islamic and Communist oppression, not something that entered the Church when Constantine made Christianity a legal religion.

With that said, I think her analysis of the Western Church over the last thousand years is pretty accurate for the brief space in which she has to write in this book. Her analysis of the way the postmodern mind deconstructs the structure established in the Reformation (attempting to base authority on a text) is, as they say, spot on. And we are certainly in the middle of both a societal upheaval and an upheaval in our understanding of religion today in the US – beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So I guess I give this book one thumb up. It’s worth reading and it’s a quick read. But read it with a grain of salt, especially when it’s discussing the first thousand years of Christianity.


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.


Changing the World, Teen Pregnancies, and Food Banks

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Changing the World, Teen Pregnancies, and Food Banks

I was reading Father Stephen’s post, To Change the World, and a number of different thoughts and emotions came to mind. I want to start with this quote:

But we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.

The example he uses to illustrate that point particularly struck home with me. When you’re a teen parent, especially one with few resources, you learn to swallow your pride. You learn to endure whatever you need to endure to obtain what you need for your family. But you do not remember those acts as acts of goodness or of love. When you do encounter actual goodness, real love, it sticks with you. Forever.

I remember when I was seventeen and working in Monroe, LA digging trenches and laying cablevision cable. We tried to share a house with a couple I worked with, but they decided it was too expensive and bailed to an apartment by the paper mills in West Monroe. (Gotta love the smell of paper mills in the morning!) We left that house as well since we couldn’t afford it by ourselves (leases don’t mean much when you have nothing) and took the first place we could find that we could afford, a tiny two room (yes, that’s two room, not two bedroom) house that had once been a parsonage, rented by the pastor and his wife of said church. (I have no memory whatsoever what church it might have been.) We did move in and water was included in the rent. So that was good. But we had zip left over to have the electricity turned on. You can manage without electricity and we had before, so we managed. When you have a baby, a roof and running water are the first things you worry about. Food for your child is second.

Perhaps a week to ten days later, the pastor’s wife stopped by while I was at work to see how things were going. When she discovered that we didn’t have electricity, she immediately took my first wife and daughter down to the electric company, wrote the check for the deposit, and made sure they turned on the electricity that same afternoon. It was quite a surprise for me when I finally got home after dark. (I tended to be out digging trenches until it was too dark to see many days.)

Those are the acts you remember. I doubt they remember us at all. We were in their lives for such a short period of time and we never really got to know each other. But that simple act of kindness and love has remained with me to this day. To be honest, if it weren’t for a trail of such acts through a period of my life where I had a pretty negative opinon about Christianity, I might not be Christian today. I do also remember the evil Christians did to me, but I was never able to say they were all like that. Because of people like that pastor’s wife, who would not take no for an answer. The kindness of strangers is nothing to sneer at.

While there are exceptions, when you act in an effort to control another person, even if “for their own good”, it’s not an act of love. God does not act that way toward us. He does not overpower us, though he may reveal himself to us. Even in that revelation, we have the freedom to say no. God does not manipulate us. Other than love, God does not have an agenda.

I wish that were more often true of Christians. Back when I attended and paid attention to the “business meetings” of our church (and that was years ago), I remember being somewhat repelled by the rules and forms and conditions our food pantry placed on our offering. Yes, I’m sure many people will go through whatever hurdles we set in order to get food. I’ve been in those shoes. I have not forgotten. Perhaps because I’ve been on the receiving end, I had a really hard time seeing the “caritas” in that approach. I’m sure that’s why I was so captivated by that portion of Sara Miles book, take this bread.

In his post, Father Stephen says this:

Is it good to help someone finish school? I think so.

Even that is bittersweet to me. Yes, I agree it is. But as I attended my Mom’s graduation last weekend (now both parents have doctorates and my brother has his Master’s degree), there were several things that caused me to pause and recognize that the last graduation I had was my graduation from 8th grade. I did get my GED. I have almost enough hours for my bachelor’s degree. But I’ve yet to actually have a graduation. I’ve been very fortunate. But still … I think it is good to help someone finish school.

Read Father Stephen’s post. And perhaps, instead of trying to change the world, simply try to actually do whatever good might cross your path on any given day.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.


Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.


Beyond Justification 3 – What is the goal of the human being?

Posted: May 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

We are not only being saved from something, we are being saved toward something. What is the goal of our salvation?

When you immerse yourself in the ecumenical councils and the writings surrounding them, you quickly find that you cannot discuss salvation without discussing Christ. You cannot even begin to understand what it means to be saved until you understand who Christ is. As St. Gregory the Theologian famously proclaimed:

What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united with his divinity that is saved.

This is the reason that Jesus had to assume our fallen nature, die, and be resurrected. We first had to be freed from death. But that was never the ultimate goal for humanity. That was the work of redemption, restoration, and healing. But the goal? I don’t think so. For what were we created? In order to begin to answer that question, consider another one first. If mankind had never fallen would the Incarnation still have been needed? Referencing St. Maximos the Confessor and others, from the Beyond Justification article:

However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Absolutely. In the Resurrection Jesus emptied Hades, that is to say he defeated death universally for every human being. This is the gift of God we were powerless to achieve on our own. But that act alone only brings us back to something like the starting point. By joining his nature to ours, Jesus makes it possible for us to unite ourselves to God. In the story of man in the garden, man had the potential for immortality or for mortality. That much was in our nature. But we were still created either way and the uncreated God was beyond our ken and ultimately unknowable. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God united human nature to his nature, changing what it means to be human and providing us the means to unite, to become one with, God. To be truly human is to be the one standing in creation such that when creation beholds us, it beholds God. This is what it means to be an eikon living fully in the likeness of God. We are meant to reflect God into creation as we participate in the communal life of God.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification. God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins. His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword. The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality. Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected. Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality. John Meyendorff summarizes the significance of the Cross for the Christian East as follows:

…In the East, the Cross is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which “satisfies” a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for one’s sins. As George Florovsky rightly puts it: “the death on the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord.” The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious circle of sin and corruption.

Exactly. We need forgiveness. We have done wrong. But in deed and parable and voice we see in Scripture a God overflowing with mercy and forgiveness. Heck, that was Jonah’s complaint about God and he was proven right! The Cross was not necessary for God to forgive us. If all we had needed was forgiveness, God had (and has) an inexhaustible overabundance. God has never had a forgiveness problem and we do him wrong when we attribute such a problem to him. But don’t worry, I’m sure he forgives us for the poor way we portray his lovingkindness and mercy. 😉

Tomorrow I’ll explore more fully the goal which is variously called theosis or deification, becoming one with God in Christ.