Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

Posted: February 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

This post is not going to be one that covers the few prooftexts in Scripture that generally tend to be the focus in discussions on the topic of original sin. I wanted to make sure at the outset that nobody reading this post did so with the wrong expectations. I will look at those specific texts later as I explore the historical context for the development of the idea of inherited guilt within some segments of Christianity. That’s where that particular discussion fits in my personal narrative and I think that’s the best context in which to discuss those few texts.

In this post I’m going to explore a few things about the God I found in the Holy Scriptures as I began to try to grasp the uniquely Christian narrative of God, Man, and their relation to each other. The Scriptures are an ancient text and that tends to make them a little harder for a modern American to read and truly understand. But these were hardly the first ancient texts or the first sacred writings I had ever explored and tried to understand. I recognized the challenge and knew that I would have to have a better grasp of both ancient and second temple Jewish culture. And to understand the new Testament, I would have to then perceive that culture’s interaction (in light of Christ) with the ancient Greco-Roman world (with which I already had a fair degree of familiarity).

So I read the Gospels (the obvious place to start) several times, trying to absorb what they said about Jesus of Nazareth. And I noticed something that caught my attention. Jesus insists, in more than one place, that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings speak of him. It’s particularly dramatic in Luke on the road to Emmaus, but that’s hardly the only place. And so I began to gather the impression that it was not enough to simply have some understanding of ancient Jewish culture and historical context in order to read what we call the Old Testament. From a Christian perspective, it had to be read and interpreted through the lens of Christ, which means that a Jewish and a Christian reading of a text might very well be entirely different. I was also reading other ancient Christian writings and their authors confirmed my impression. Any and every Christian reading of our Holy Scriptures must first and foremost be christological in nature. The text is illuminated in and through Christ. I explain that because it conditions the way I read and understand the Holy Scriptures and thus necessarily frames the narrative arc I see in the text.

The best place to start, perhaps, is at the beginning. In the West, Genesis 3 is typically read as a story of legal violation and condemnation. The first man and woman are tempted. The first man and woman knowingly break God’s inviolable and holy law. The first man and woman are “separated” (now there’s a concept that requires very careful nuance and unfortunately rarely receives it) from God. The first man and woman are condemned by God to death and punishment and eternal torment in hell for their guilt for breaking God’s law. (And tied into that usually runs a thread that creates a problem for God either with his honor or his ability to forgive. Basically, you usually end up with a God who is either overly concerned about his honor or a God who cannot forgive an offense without payment. Now, that does not correlate very well at all with the God we find in scripture and it oversimplifies mankind’s problem and the measures necessary to save us. But that’s an entirely different series. Not this one.) And then their descendants, all of humanity, inherit from that first couple the guilt for their one violation of God’s command.

The problem with that narrative is that Genesis 3 simply doesn’t read that way without some serious distortion. That part of the narrative opens with the serpent telling the woman that she would not “die by death” from eating of the fruit. Instead, they would become like gods — a short and easy path to deification. (Ironically, God had created humanity in his image to bless creation and to grow and mature into communion with God. But the proper path was through obedience and faithfulness rather than disobedience and faithlessness. The serpent tempted the first couple with a false path toward the goal for which they were intended in their creation.) When they eat, their eyes are opened and they know shame, something they had never previously known.

So now they are condemned by God and “separated” from him, right? So then why is it that the next twist in the story is that God comes looking for them? They have tried to turn from God. They have moved away from their only source of life. In effect, they are seeking a non-existence they have no power to attain (since everything is sustained by and contingent on God who is everywhere present and filling all things). Hiding from their only source of life, they are mortal and are now ruled by death. But God does not permit that separation. And in this first turn of the story, we immediately see Jesus, also called Immanuel — God with us. We hide. God comes to us.

And what does God do? He curses the serpent. But the man and the woman suffer the natural consequences for their choices. Moreover, all creation is cursed, not by God (read it carefully), but by us. And God tells us that we are formed from the earth, and it is only when the clay is joined with God’s breath that we become a living soul. So, having turned from God’s breath, from God’s life, we are dust returning to dust. And yet, we are also eikons of God — a God who does not begrudge any of his creation existence — and as images of God, however damaged, we have no means of completely ceasing to exist. (That’s the source of the description of death as Sheol, Hades, or Hel — in Jewish and Christian rather than pagan terms. We became ruled by death and descended into it, but were unable to pass completely into non-existence. That was mankind’s ultimate plight from which we needed rescue. That’s why our problem required a solution as utterly amazing and unimagined as the Incarnation.)

And then God clothes the man and the woman. He covers their shame. But in that act, I also see a prefiguration of the Incarnation. Jesus takes on our nature in order to clothe the nature of man with the divine nature and through that union to heal and transform the nature of man.

And finally, lest we bind ourselves forever in ever corrupting flesh, God seals us from any other path to a sort of fleshly immortality that would not heal our corrupted nature and bodies. It’s clear in the story that he does this as an act of love and mercy on our behalf.

So tell me, where in this story is man truly “separated” from God. Yes, we try to turn from God. We try to hide from God. But God searches for us. God clothes us. God protects us. We have created a sort of separation from God our source of life within ourselves. That is true. But God never draws away from man in the story.

And where does God condemn man? Yes, he describes the consequences humanity will suffer flowing from our turn from him. And God describes how through that turn from him, we have cursed creation and creation will therefore no longer exist in harmony with us. And yet even as he describes the consequences, he gives the first promise that he is working to solve the problem. The promised seed of the woman is Christ. In the story, God does not condemn us. Instead, he immediately promises to rescue us from our own folly.

The God in our text, the God revealed to us in Jesus, is not a God of condemnation. He is not a stiff and unforgiving God. He is a God who overflows with mercy, a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive, a God whose justice is love. We’ll look more at that God in the arc of scripture tomorrow. I don’t know a whole lot about our sacred text. I still feel woefully ignorant. But nowhere do I see the story of the sort of God who condemns all of humanity for the inherited guilt of a single act by a single pair of distant ancestors.


Original Sin 6 – Guilt vs. Consequences

Posted: February 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 6 – Guilt vs. Consequences

I realized that while the distinction between guilt and consequences in the context of this series is one that is clear to me, I haven’t written anything in this series to explicitly draw that distinction. And it will become increasingly important as the series progresses. So I’ve decided this will be the topic for today’s post. The next post will be my first one directly venturing into my early interactions with the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures on this topic.

In my second post of the series, I tried to outline the specific shape of the problem of defining original sin as inherited guilt. In other words, before God as judge, each person is born already condemned or guilty as a result of their inherited guilt for the actions of some distant ancestor. However, the fact that I reject that perspective does not then mean that I believe that any of us are somehow free from the actions and choices of our parents and ancestors. Nobody starts life with a clean slate completely free from the influence of anyone but themselves. But the language for what we experience is not properly the language of guilt or innocence. It is the language of consequences.

And yes, just as I did in the second post of the series, I have a brief thought exercise that should help clarify the difference. So once again, I ask you to engage your imagination and travel with me on a short excursion.

A woman, perhaps as a teenager interacting with the wrong group of people and making poor choices, begins to experiment with illegal drugs and eventually becomes addicted to crack cocaine. As an addict, she continues to make poor choices and becomes pregnant. Over the course of her pregnancy, this woman continues to be ruled by her addiction and keeps using crack. Eventually, she goes into labor and delivers a daughter. Because of her mother’s illegal drug use during pregnancy, the little girl is born with crack cocaine in her system, already addicted to it. She is what we call a “crack baby.”

None of us would consider arresting that baby for the juridical crime of using illegal drugs. No judge or jury would find the poor infant guilty for the crime of her mother. In fact, we would in most cases take the child from the mother, not as some form of punishment, but in order to protect that helpless infant girl from further harm. The mother may have committed a crime, but the baby girl did not inherit the mother’s moral or legal guilt for that crime.

However, that infant was born into and bearing the consequences of her mother’s decisions and actions. Those consequences cannot be escaped. Depending on the circumstances and severity the child may suffer lasting physical or mental damage. Even if she escapes with no permanent physical damage, she is still beginning life without the safety and stability of a home with parents. That little girl will suffer to some extent the consequences of her birth flowing from the actions of her mother. She need not be ruled by them. People often manage to overcome the circumstances of their birth in amazing ways. But she will not be able to escape those circumstances.

The same thing is true for us all, though usually not in as clear a manner as in my little story. We are born into a dangerous and disordered world. We are born mortal and subject to death. We are born to parents who have been shaped themselves by that reality. We are surrounded by human beings also shaped by those same forces. In Christian terminology (which I am still not always comfortable using), we are born into a fallen creation and we suffer the natural consequences thereof. Moreover, we specifically suffer the consequences of our parents’ choices and actions. We might be born into poverty or wealth (and neither are free from pitfalls) as a result of what our parents (or their ancestors) have done. We might be born into a family engulfed by a multi-generational cycle of abuse. We might be born into families ruled by addictions. But even if we escape the most obvious sorts of negative consequences of our birth, we are still mortal. And it’s still a disordered and sometimes even dangerous world in which we live.


Original Sin 5 – Evolution

Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

As I began to record my thoughts for today’s post, it dawned on me that the route this series is taking might seem to be a strange and circuitous one to some of those reading it. In part, I believe that is due to the way I’ve chosen to develop it. I’m writing from the perspective of my own personal interaction with this idea as I journeyed into my present Christian faith. As such, even though I am compressing and abridging that interaction, the shape of the series necessarily follows something like the shape of my own journey. And that also means that the series will explore problems and questions first; answers come later for I began to discover them later. It also means the issues, problems, and questions I encountered may not necessarily be the same ones someone else encounters in their journey. Though I mentioned my approach at the outset, I thought I should clarify. I realized that yesterday’s post and today’s might seem like a strange detour to some reading.

Yesterday I briefly discussed karma to illustrate how I was unwilling to exchange a framework with which I was pretty comfortable for an inferior one. That was tinged by an early recognition on my part that I could not continue to hold both. At a very deep level, the narrative of Resurrection is very different from and incompatible with the narrative within which karma functions. I would not say I suddenly dropped one and embraced the other. It was a lengthier process than that. But it did become clear from an early point — St. John the Theologian’s Gospel had a lot to do with that illumination — that if I continued my journey into Christianity, at some point I would shift narrative frameworks. (Although it’s not exactly relevant to this series, I’m struck by the manner in which so many modern Christians don’t seem to realize just how revolutionary, transforming, and counter-intuitive the narrative of Resurrection is.)

I was shaped and formed within the context of an extended family of scientists and artists. (I’ll also point out those are not mutually exclusive categories. Many in my family are both scientists and artists of one sort or another.) While I’m neither, at least in any realized form, I’ve always lived and breathed within the framework of both. My father is a geneticist and spent his career doing research. While, as I outlined above, I foresaw the need and was not unwilling to exchange my narrative framework of the broader context of reality (some might call it a metaphysical framework, but I’m not entirely comfortable with that word as it means very different things to different people) for a Christian one, I was never willing to adopt a framework that sat in opposition to the scientific narrative of physical reality. (Nor is there anyone who reasonably should. The larger frameworks — Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Atheist, etc. — operate beyond the scope of the scientific narrative.) It’s an unfortunate reality that so many modern Christians have allowed their Christian narrative to shrink either to an alternative and opposing perspective or to one which is smaller than and fits inside the narrative of science rather than the other way around. But I was never tempted in either direction.

Why does that matter? Long before I found the root of the idea behind the notion of original sin as inherited guilt in ancient Greek philosophy, I recognized one key weakness in it from a natural perspective. If all human beings who presently or have ever lived have inherited the moral and juridical guilt of the first man who “sinned” against God, then that means that all human beings must be descended from a single pair of ancestors (or at least from the original “guilty” one). And we now know, with near certainty, that that is not the case. The science is beyond the scope of this series. Moreover, it’s not a field in which I can claim any sort of personal expertise and I don’t trust myself to communicate my understanding of it clearly. Nevertheless, the evidence is pretty convincing and I encourage anyone interested to explore it on your own.

I had ample reasons from my perspective to set aside the idea of inherited guilt without even considering this particular issue. Nevertheless, I did see this problem early and was unwilling to adopt a “faith” that stood in opposition to pretty clear natural evidence. I don’t particularly care myself whether or not humanity originated with a single couple nor do I know many scientists with a vested interest either way. But the evidence does not seem to support such an idea, and I’m not interested in making something so shaky a “linchpin” of my larger narrative framework. Mine already don’t tend to be as strongly held or constructed as they seem to be for many people. I’m not interested in deliberately weakening it with such comparatively fragile pieces.

As an aside, I will note that it’s my understanding that the Roman Catholic Church, which is the tradition within which the idea of original sin as inherited guilt originally flowered toward the end of the first millenium of Christianity, does in some way reconcile scientific evidence with the overarching idea of inherited guilt. Although I have had numerous interactions with Roman Catholicism over the course of my life and have Catholic family and friends, I wandered into Christianity myself in an evangelical Southern Baptist context. So I must confess I don’t know how the Roman Catholic Church reconciles this specific issue. If anyone does know, feel free to share that information in the comments.

Finally, though not really related to the topic of this series, I will note that I’m also not tied to the idea that within the context of created time, there was ever a specific point in time when creation was not disordered as a result of sin. According to Christian faith, human beings were created as eikons (icons or images) of the uncreated God for the purpose of reflecting God into creation and for communion with God. Time itself is a creation of God, not uncreated. If we were created, in part, to reflect the uncreated energies into creation, then it seems to me that normal perceptions of causal effect might not apply in this regard. I’m comfortable with the idea that creation has been disordered and groaning from the beginning as a result of our failure to fill our proper role within it. And I’m comfortable with the idea that even as we are born into a “fallen” creation, “inheriting” death, we also participate actively in the fall of Man and the disordering of creation when we each choose to abandon our eucharistic (thanksgiving) role. I tend to view being “in Adam” or “in Christ” in more active than passive or static terms.

I will also note, however, that we see a marked increase in the disordering of creation as soon as man took an active hand in it. Even with very primitive tools, we hunted entire species to extinction and contributed (although mildly by modern standards) to climate change. And those are just examples that can be measured from a perspective that is millenia removed. Paul’s analogy of creation groaning is an apt one, indeed.

Tomorrow I’ll touch on some of the problems the idea of inherited guilt creates within the Christian scriptural narrative.


Original Sin 4 – Karma

Posted: February 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 4 – Karma

Although not directly related to the topic of original sin, I think it’s important to briefly touch upon the framework of karma as I explore the ways I interacted with the idea of inherited guilt in my personal journey. Before my turn toward Christianity, the primary lens through which I interpreted and made sense of reality was largely karmic in nature.

Karma is often caricatured in Christian discussion as a lens which is fatalistic, deterministic, or pessimistic. But that’s not really the case. While it is nuanced differently in different settings and traditions, the karmic tapestry is rich and multivalenced. There are different ways to categorize karma according to time, priority of effect, or function. While karma plays a part in determining your present position, it is not the only force at work and beings are not bound or limited by their karma.

Within a karmic perception of reality, every birth is conditioned (though rarely solely) by the karma of the past life. However, this is different from the idea of inherited guilt in several important ways. First, it is not “guilt” or “innocence” in a juridical sense. Instead, your karma consists of the accumulated weight and causal effect of your past attitudes, decisions, and actions. There is no external judge rendering a verdict in the system. Moreover, though the karma of your parents can physically condition circumstances of  your birth (a healthy mother, for instance, is more likely to give birth to a healthy baby than an unhealthy mother), your karma is your own, is specifically separate from that of your parents, and is not bound by their karma.

When compared to that system, a framework that posits inherited guilt before an external deity with determined condemnation on that basis alone looks … shallow and capricious. I was not particularly willing to exchange a framework with which I was comfortable for an inferior one, yet I was undeniably attracted to this Jesus of Nazareth.

While the percentage of people who formally adhere to an Eastern religion remains low in the United States, I think many people underestimate the extent to which that mindset has influenced our present culture. That influence will only deepen over time. While a proper Christian perspective of reality, of a good God who loves mankind, of a Lord who joins his nature with ours in order to rescue us from death provides, I think, a superior view of reality to the far Eastern one, much of what is espoused as Christian today does not. And this is one of the places where it does not at all. I’m sure that was a factor in my initial reaction against the Western doctrine of original sin.


Original Sin 3 – The Fate of Children Who Die

Posted: February 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I engaged and sometimes practiced a broad spectrum of Christian and non-Christian religions and spiritualities growing up. So I was not ignorant about popular Christian teachings. But I did not really begin to seriously engage those teachings until I turned toward Christian faith when I was roughly thirty years old. By then I was a parent and had been a parent for many years, so it was perhaps natural that the first issue I had with the idea of inherited guilt revolved around its impact on children. For if we are born with the inherited guilt of our ancestor before God, then that means that every child is born already condemned.

Since I was not preconditioned to accept this idea of original sin, I made no effort to fit it into my developing Christian understanding of man and the particular sort of God we find revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, my initial reaction, once I traced its implications, was that the idea itself could not be right. I did not believe that the God whose love had drawn me toward Christian faith was the sort of judge who would condemn infants, not for anything they had done themselves, but for a legal and moral guilt they had inherited. As I often do when something does not require an immediate answer or solution, I set the matter aside for later exploration and, perhaps, illumination. But I do not recall any point at which I was willing to accept the idea that children are culpable before God simply for being human. I suppose on some level, I recognized from the start that this God I was discovering was a “good God who loves mankind.”

Of course, most of us instinctively reject the idea that children inherit guilt. We reject the image of a God who would condemn an infant simply for his birth. And we are right to do so, for such a God would be abhorrent. (Yes, I know there are some hardcore Calvinists who do actually hold that infants are born guilty and that at least some of those who die are condemned by God to an eternity of punishment in hell. But their God is already abhorrent for many reasons. That’s just one more entry in a lengthy list.)

Different traditions resolve that underlying problem in varying ways. I won’t explore them all here. But one example from my own SBC denomination is the so-called “age of accountability.” Essentially, it says that although children are born with the inherited guilt of original sin, God doesn’t hold them “accountable” for that guilt. Basically they get a free pass in God’s court. At some undetermined point in each child’s life, if they develop normally, they become able to grasp their guilt before God and at that point they become “accountable” for both their own guilt and their inherited guilt.

While the “age of accountability” idea does work around the abhorrent image of a God who condemns infants for eternity for the actions of others, it creates its own problems. Not least of those is the strange way it leads people to speak of and to children. We raise the child to love Jesus and tell them over and over again how much Jesus loves them. We teach them to pray and to sing to Jesus. And then at some point we tell them they are separated from God and they need to tell Jesus they’re sorry and that they love him and that they want him in their lives. But haven’t we raised them loving Jesus? Why is Jesus suddenly requiring them to ask for his forgiveness? How have they truly wronged him to create such a sudden separation? Yes, at some point every person will have to make their childhood faith their own if they are going to continue in that faith. I have no argument on that point. But doesn’t that only seem like an exceedingly strange way to go about it? Or is that just me?

However, I digress. We all recognize that condemning descendants for the actions of their ancestor is fundamentally unjust. That was the point of the thought experiment yesterday. The injustice of the idea is simply magnified when we consider children. And it was on this point that I first rejected the idea of inherited guilt. But it was hardly the only reason I found to reject it or the only problem I found it raised. So we’ll continue this meandering series tomorrow.


Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Posted: February 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Before we can begin any discussion of Original Sin, of course, I think it’s important to provide some context and definition for the idea we will be discussing. (Or on which I’ll be having a monologue if nobody else has anything to say.) When I use the term, I have in mind the idea, first articulated as such by St. Augustine, that when Adam sinned, we all — as his descendants — participated in his sin and are thus born already judged guilty by God of Adam’s sin and, as a result of Adam’s actions, condemned to death and eternal punishment in hell. In other words, the entire concept hinges on the idea of inherited guilt. As the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are held accountable for their actions and crimes against God’s law. We are born juridically condemned for their acts. We are judged guilty at birth even though we have not yet decided or done anything ourselves.

Now, let’s consider this idea of inherited guilt apart from anything to do with Christianity, faith, or spirituality for a minute. A pretty simple story, a thought experiment if you will, should help put this idea into context.

Let’s say there was a notorious Nazi guard at Auschwitz during WWII. This guard actively participated in the torture and mass execution of many, many people. He was known and feared by many in the concentration camp and remembered by the survivors. Yet, in the confusion at the end of the war, he managed to escape, change his name, and build a new life for himself. Over time, he married, had three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is just two weeks old. Finally, as an old man, his true identity is discovered and he is prosecuted for the crimes against humanity he committed as an Auschwitz prison guard. In due course, the international court finds him guilty of those crimes and sentences him to life in prison.

However, the court does not stop there. It also finds that as his direct descendants, his three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren (even the youngest who is now six months old in the narrative of our thought experiment) are also guilty of crimes against humanity. As the Nazi guard’s descendants, they are equally guilty for the acts of their ancestor, even though they had no knowledge of those actions and the acts themselves occurred long before they were even born. They share the same judicial condemnation and sentence as their ancestor. They are all sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole from the oldest to the youngest.

Would we call that justice? And yet it is precisely the scenario put forth by those who teach that juridical guilt can be and is inherited. At a later juncture, I will probably explore some of the historical framework and context for the development of this idea. But this post should help put into context the idea of “original sin” that I will be exploring in this series.


Original Sin 1 – Series Intro

Posted: February 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 1 – Series Intro

Ever since the comments on a sweet and beautiful post by Elizabeth Esther evolved the way they did, I’ve felt that I should record some of my thoughts on the doctrine typically called “Original Sin” in a series on my blog. It’s something I’ve written about and discussed in a variety of settings, but I’ve never really collected any of my thoughts here. I’ll try to rectify that in this series.

I’ve been mulling how to approach this series. I’m not particular interested in writing a structured, point by point paper or argument. While I can do that when I need to do so, it’s neither my preferred way of thinking nor my preferred mode of expression. As such, I’ve decided to write the series from the perspective of things I encountered or noticed along my own journey. That does mean that I’ll probably not cover every point that matters to any particular person, but I will touch on the ones that matter the most to me.

I will note that in the last few years I’ve discovered that my perspective on this particular issue fits comfortably within the spectrum of belief which, in the Orthodox Church, is often referred to as the “Ancestral Sin“. So if you are familiar with the nature of the differences between that perspective and the idea of “Original Sin“, you probably won’t find much that is new or interesting in my series. I’m not Orthodox and am not in any position to communicate or defend Orthodox belief, so if you expect anything along those lines, you’ll be disappointed. I’m merely pointing out the similarity for those already familiar with Orthodoxy and Orthodox belief.

I have had and continue to have family and friends within almost every flavor of modern Christianity. And I have family and friends who are not Christian at all. Though I have and will express strong personal reactions to some of the ideas that are inextricably intertwined with the doctrine of Original Sin, I do so within the context of also loving people who sometimes themselves hold a particular idea I reject or who reject a perspective of reality I hold dear. That’s never been an issue or a problem for me or for most of the people in my life. But I mention it because I have sometimes encountered an attitude that, though is rarely expressed in blunt terms, seems to boil down to the idea that you can’t love people unless you agree with their beliefs. I’ve never understood why some people seem to react that way, but it’s not the way I react. And neither do the people I know and love.

Tomorrow I’ll dive into the series itself. My plan is to keep each post in this series relatively short. We’ll see whether or not I can accomplish that goal.


The Monstrous Within Us All

Posted: February 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

As I’m sure most people are now aware, this past week an Austin resident snapped and flew his small plane into one of our IRS offices. Due to a well-designed building, some fast thinking and good reactions from those in the building, small acts of heroism, and a healthy helping of good fortune, it appears that only one person died in the attack. While I did not personally know Vern Hunter or his wife Valerie, I’m still discovering those within the web of my friends and acquaintances who did know Vern. The IRS is a large employer in Austin, but I suppose you can’t work for them for a quarter of a century without developing connections that leave you one or two degrees of separation from many of the other employees. My thoughts and prayers have been and remain with the Hunters.

Nobody I personally know was injured or killed in this attack. As such, I would not describe my reaction to it as grief. Nevertheless, as my coworkers and I (and our immediate families) fielded calls and texts all day Thursday from friends and loved ones across the country checking on our well-being, I experienced a sense of … unreality. I suppose that sort of reaction is a natural insulating effect of mild shock. This particular attack hit uncomfortably close to “home,” to the immediate environment over which we all of like to feel some degree of control. It drove home how little we are able to truly control.

Of course, we all immediately wish to demonize people like Joe Stack. We want to strip them of their humanity and turn them into monsters. We want to turn them into the “other”, distance them from ourselves, and make them into objects of scorn and hatred. The message of that hatred is, in part, that “we” (our network of family and friends — our tribe, if you will) are not like that monster. We could never act in such a way.

It is, of course, true that most of us will never act as Joe Stack did. But that is not quite the same thing. And though we wish to deny it, we do share in Joseph Stack’s basic humanity. It’s in that shared human nature, which those of us who are Christian would call an icon of the Creator, that we have the capacity for acts of incredible goodness and heroism. But it is also in that same damaged nature that we all have a capacity for the monstrous. It is perhaps only when we acknowledge that fact that we find the ability to love those who make themselves into monsters. The reaction of the Amish when their children were gunned down is the example of humanizing love that comes to my mind. Of course, I am a Christian. And I would say that ultimately our capacity to love flows from the one who is Love. But that does not diminish the synergy of our participation in that love or the dissonance when we refuse to participate.

I’ve been following the reports of neighbors, acquaintances, and family of Joe Stack. They all describe a man not unlike us all. He was a man who loved and was loved. It’s become clear that he was more tormented by his demons than those around him realized, but they were pretty ordinary demons. There was nothing that stood out about Joe Stack, that marked him as anyone unusual, until that moment when he chose to act.

I was heartbroken by the comments of his daughter, who lives in Norway. They spoke often. She loved him and had no sense that anything was wrong. Her children, his grandchildren, loved him. At one point, she says, “Maybe if I’d lived in the states… a little closer to him… I don’t know.” My heart ached for her as I read that statement. There is, of course, no answer to that question. But who among us has not been tormented by the question: What if? It’s a cruel question and yet one we cannot seem to avoid.

The reality is that people are not monsters; they are not demons. Human beings perform monstrous acts; they try to dehumanize themselves. That is absolutely true. But at one point in their lives, they were that helpless infant, that small and hopeful child, a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a parent — a person with dreams not unlike the rest of us. Almost everyone has loved and been loved. Even the “monsters” leave behind people who love them, confused and heartbroken. Even the most monstrous cannot escape their basic humanity.

And when we recognize that fact, we are forced to acknowledge that the capacity for the monstrous exists within us all. As a Christian, I turn to Jesus and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” for I do not know what else to do. He is the only human being who, fully sharing our nature, defeated the monstrous within it. If we cannot find our true humanity, a humanity worth embracing, in Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t know where else to turn. I’ve explored so many other paths and found nothing like the promise Jesus offers. But sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s real, especially when forced to face the monstrous.

My heart also breaks for the family and friends of Joe Stack. I can’t imagine their pain and heartbreak. And so I pray for them. But I also pray that God has mercy on Joseph Stack III. After all, he was a human being, created as an eikon of God. If I deny that fact, if I let myself turn him into a monster, then I am denying my own humanity and life itself, at least as I understand it to be hid with Christ in God.

Lord have mercy.


For the Life of the World 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amen! Amen!

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post is a reflection on something I’ve heard or read a number of times over the past several months from some pretty different sources. Although I wouldn’t say that any aspect of it was something I didn’t know beforehand, it’s been bouncing around my head now for some time. It’s time to express those thoughts in writing.

We know some things about the rabbinic strand of Judaism that began during the exile and continued into the second temple period in which the Christian gospels are rooted. The things we learn about that period historically sometimes cast a particular light on something in the gospels. For instance, there was and is a rabbinic teaching (Berachot 6a) that wherever two or three are gathered together studying Torah, the shekinah of God (the presence and glory of God that, for example, filled Solomon’s temple) is with them. When you understand that teaching, it sheds a deeper light on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 (originally written, remember, for a Jewish audience): “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

When a rabbi taught or spoke, those listening would say “Amen” when he finished if they concurred. “Amen” is the transliteration of an aramaic word that means, in essence, “I agree. I accept it.” Those listening to the rabbi would thus give their “amen”, their agreement after the rabbi had spoken.

That becomes significant as you read the accounts of Jesus teaching in the New Testament. Again and again, Jesus starts his teaching with “verily” (KJV), “truly” (many translations), or “I tell you the truth” (a lot of the more modern translations). We’ve gotten so used to it, I’m not even sure we tend to notice the phrase as we read the gospels. The phrase being translated, though, is “Amen” or “Amen Amen”. When Jesus says that at the start of something he is saying, it stands in sharp contract to typical rabbinic practice of the time. Basically, he is not only giving his own “amen” at the start, he is telling those listening that their “amen” is unnecessary. Jesus doesn’t need it. He is saying that his words are truth whether or not the hearers agree. When people said that he did not speak as other teachers did, that he spoke with authority, that’s certainly a part of what they meant.

That can be a difficult concept for me in many ways. Of course, on one level, it’s obvious that if God is who we find in Jesus of Nazareth, then many things we can imagine about the nature of reality are necessarily ruled out. If reality is resurrection, then reincarnation is ruled out. If reality is love and mercy, then at some level we have to let go of our ideas of karmic retribution. If reality is unfailing love, then we have to let go of the capricious gods that have dominated human history. And yet, the idea that reality is a particular way and does not require my “amen” still at some level bothers me. “Everybody wants to rule the world” as they say — or least their little slice of reality.

And, of course, not only does Jesus need no “amen”, not only does he give his own “amen” before he speaks, we see in Revelation that he is even named the Amen. I sense in that name that Jesus is the Amen of man. He is the true man, the faithful man, the man who gave to God his Amen. And as the faithful man, he recapitulates our story, joining our nature once again with God’s. We withheld our “amen” from God. Jesus stands as the Amen of man to God.