Who Am I?

Praying with the Church 2 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Time, Sacred Term

Posted: July 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This chapter starts with his self-identification as a ‘stubborn, low- church Protestant’. It includes this funny sentence: “If I can be shown that something is in the Bible, I’m all for it — except for things like greeting one another with a holy kiss or washing one another’s feet.” At least, I found it funny. On the serious side, Scot asks the following three questions.

How does Jesus want me to pray?

How did Jesus himself pray?

What did Jesus teach about prayer?

I have a hard time imagining better questions to ask about prayer. Scot then divides the lessons he has learned into four areas, two of which are in this chapter.

Sacred Time: Learning When to Pray

“Jesus prayed all the time.” That seems like an obvious statement when made, but I think we tend to overlook it. Scot opens with the emphasis that Jesus did pray alone in his Portiuncola. Constantly. All time is sacred and we are to honor the lengthy Christian tradition, realized in many different ways, of praying constantly. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” can, and has been interpreted in two ways: a constant attitude of prayerfulness or devoting ourselves to the sacred rhythms of prayer. The bible and Jesus’ practice supports both, so Scot thinks (and I agree) that we should embrace both. That’s unusual for him. Having followed his thinking for some time now, he normally finds the option of choosing ‘both’ in biblical interpretation disingenuous at best. As a translator and scholar he adheres to the thought that most of the time when people say something, they have a specific meaning in mind. As such, when he says we should consider a text to carry two different interpretations, it catches my attention more than if someone else were to say the same thing.

Sacred Term: Learning What to Call God

Jesus’ prayers almost always begin with ‘Abba’. The use of the term itself or the intimacy with God that went with it was, contrary to some popular opinion, neither new nor unique in Jewish culture. However, Jesus’ emphasis on that term is distinctive and goes far beyond anything else. Further, he taught his followers to begin their prayers with Abba. For Jesus, that is the sacred name of God. “Prayer for Jesus is about calling God Abba.”

So we start with praying all the time and calling God Abba. “But there is more to Jesus’ own prayer life than praying alone — for Jesus was one in whom the ancient Israelite prayer traditions came alive.”


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 16

Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 16

46.  The sensible man, taking into account the remedial effect of the divine prescriptions, gladly bears the sufferings which they bring upon him, since he is aware that they have no cause other than his own sin. But when the fool, ignorant of the supreme wisdom of God’s providence, sins and is corrected, he regards either God or men as responsible for the hardships he suffers.

St. Maximos’ point in this text is, I think, easy to misunderstand. It’s not his point that we are being punished by suffering for our crimes. That’s a distorted view of both sin and reality. Rather, there is a sense that human beings are created communal and designed for communion in the image of God. As such, our sin goes beyond the results we can directly perceive and contributes to the disordering of creation. Moreover, we are meant to be our brother’s keeper and, as such, we share in the “sin” (conceived as missing the mark) of all humanity.

Therefore, when the Christian experiences suffering, we don’t blame it on God or man. We seek healing, change, and growth through it. Or, if we cannot do that, we simply bear it and pray for mercy. The moment we blame, we repeat the actions of the archetypal man and woman in the Genesis story. Who among us does not instantly recognize the impulse that drove them to respond the way they did? We all share that impulse. We have all done the same.

Twenty years ago, I would say I had no concept of sin in any Christian sense. As such, it has been particularly strange for me to begin to recognize that I am the worst of sinners. It’s still a bumpy journey. But I do now see the reality that when I say anything that anything else is true, then I walk in the footsteps of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable; I stand in the shoes of Cain.


Praying with the Church 1

Posted: July 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 1

I’ve mentioned Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, several times in different posts. After reading it the first couple of times in 2006, I wrote a series of reflections for a few friends of mine. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This book by Scot McKnight is a short one and I’ve already read it twice. It makes the millenia old tradition of set prayers, first established by Yahweh to order the time and lives of his people, accessible to the large swathes of Christians who long ago lost this aspect of our faith.

McKnight opens by noting that most Christians are not happy with their prayer lives. It’s my observation that he appears to be correct. Certainly my prayer has often been less than formative. In fact, I’ve often lacked words to pray, and through that lack and a deep desire to pray accidentally rediscovered one of the oldest Christian prayer traditions (which we’ll see later in the book). I believe I also read somewhere (don’t remember if it was in this book or not) that many pastors are less than satisfied with the quality of their own prayer life.

It’s important to understand the title and focus of the book. The sort of prayer many Christians know is that of praying alone in the church. Scot paints a picture of praying alone in the church “whenever an individual prays exactly and only what is on his or her heart.” That’s true even when the prayer is public or with a group of Christians. When it is our prayer and our thoughts alone, we are praying alone *in* the church. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Scot notes that it is essential to healthy Christian formation and is modeled on Jesus and the Apostles. We cannot do without it. However, it is not the only sort of prayer we find modeled in Scripture and throughout the early church. It is on this latter sort, widely forgotten and ignored, that Scot focuses in this book. As the title would indicate, he calls this sort of prayer praying *with* the Church.

Praying with the Church consists of praying set prayers from Scripture and from the pens and hearts of some of our greatest writers at fixed times during the day. This creates a sacred rhythm of prayer joining with millions of Christians around the globe who pause to pray the same prayers. This is variously called liturgical prayers, fixed-hour prayers, the Divine Office, the divine hours, the hours of prayer, or the Opus Dei (“the work of God”). Whatever it is called, it is joining hands and hearts with Christians around the world as we pray together as the Church. Praying with the church requires that we order our lives around prayer rather than ordering prayer around our busy lives — something which often ends up as very little prayer indeed. As with children, the quality of time is not more important than the quantity of time. Without a regular and reliable quantity of time ordering our lives and relationship, the quality inevitably suffers. We are body, soul, and spirit. As any part of us goes, so goes the rest. I have been adding things slowly, essentially feeling my way, but I can already attest to that truth. As I have allowed even fairly simple prayers to order my life, the quality of the rest of my prayers have dramatically improved.

Ours seems to be a tradition that finds saying the prayers of another somehow dangerous. We even go to tremendous lengths and exegetical gymnastics to avoid actually saying the prayer Jesus personally designed for us to say during set prayers. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but it clearly is. We need to get over it. Whatever it is we’re trying to do in its place clearly isn’t working. I’m not even sure what, out of the practices we do encourage, is really supposed to take its place.

What about people who say fixed-hour prayers and don’t mean them? That’s an objection Scot says many raise. I don’t know that I’ve heard it myself, but my answer would be similar to his. What about them? We all have a knack for turning just about anything into meaningless acts. That doesn’t invalidate the act itself, otherwise we could find plenty of examples for anything and be left with nothing we could actually do. (I’ve heard N.T. Wright note that even if you do nothing but sit perfectly still during ‘worship’ somebody will leave the service pleased with themselves for sitting so very still.) More importantly, when teaching Jesus never seemed to use the poor practice of others to invalidate a spiritual practice or discipline, especially those like this one given us by God. I recall lots of statements that included the phrases “When you … don’t do as … but instead do …” or a form similar to that. And when it comes to prayer, we need both the set prayers with the church and our own prayers in the church. This is an instance where we definitely need both to attain any sort of sustainable balanced prayer life. At least, most of us do.

Scot then tells a story of a trip to Italy where he and Kris visited the site of St. Francis’ little ‘portiuncola’. That small, humble building is now a building within a building. Its wholly contained in the grand basilica, St. Mary of the Angels. Scot uses this image throughout the book to contrast the two sorts of prayer. At times we need to move into our portiuncola and pray in the church, but at other times (set times) we need to step out into the basilica, join hands, and pray with the church.

Prayer is both small and private and quiet and all alone (like the portiuncola), and prayer is public and verbal and with others and in the open (like the basilica). Prayer is both private and public, both personal and communal. We may seek individual prayer, but the individual needs to be encompassed by the Church in prayer. We need both the personal and the communal — both are good; both are spiritually formative.

Scot then writes that we need this second type of prayer for two reasons. First, “we pray in order to come into union with God.” Secondly, we need to pray with the Church “because we confess the communion of the saints.” Let that sink in.

And as a Church we desperately need this. We live within a fractured church and joining in prayer at set times is something we can all both agree to do and actually do. Even if we are not otherwise able to heal the many divides, surely we can at least join in prayer to our God and our Savior, praying the Psalms, the prayer Jesus gave us, and the best prayers penned through the centuries. If we can’t even do that, then we don’t believe in one holy, catholic church, whatever we might say.

Scot concludes with a little of his own story and present practice and it’s a good conclusion to the introduction.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 15

Posted: July 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 15

43. As long as you have bad habits do not reject hardship, so that through it you may be humbled and eject your pride.

Think about this text for a while. How many of us truly change when we are comfortable and life is good? Nobody likes hardship. I’ve had an interesting life myself. I’ve never enjoyed the more difficult aspects of it, but for good or ill they have played a significant role in shaping me into the person I am today. We change and we grow under duress in ways that we do not when we are at our ease. When stressed we will change. I’m not sure that can be avoided. We can, however, shape the direction of our change. Will it be for good? Or for ill? There are human beings who face hardship and become villains. There are others who face trials just as bad or even worse and become saints. Most of us muddle through somewhere in between.

We do need to learn to rely on God and to base our character on him. But that is something that is much, much easier said than done.


Celiac Family

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s been a rough couple of months. Since celiac has a strong genetic component, we decided it would be wise to have our two younger children screened for celiac disease as part of their annual physicals. My wife and I were shocked when both of their blood panels came back not just positive, but strongly positive for celiac. (The most specific celiac test was literally “off the chart” for both of them. It exceeded the maximum measurement used by the test.) It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The odds that any first degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) of someone with celiac disease will also have active celiac are roughly 1 in 22, so we didn’t really expect either test to be positive, much less both. It was enough of a statistical oddity that my wife decided to get screened as well, just to make sure they weren’t getting a genetic double-whammy. But her celiac panel was normal, which means they both got it from me.

Of course, there isn’t anything I could have done about it. I didn’t control my own genetic makeup, much less the genes I passed on to my children. Rationally, I know that. But it still feels awful to know that you passed an incurable (though manageable) disease on to your children.

We’ve now gone through the cycle of gastroenterologist appointments and small intestine biopsies. The biopsies confirmed the celiac blood panel for both of them, so there’s really no room left for doubt. I’m proud of my kids. They’ve both handled the diagnosis surprisingly well. Obviously, they aren’t happy about it, but they are putting as positive a spin on it as possible. My son, who is headed off to college, commented that it would force him to avoid most fast food, which he called one 0f his “weaknesses”. He’s something of a fitness nut and was happy to confirm that his preferred protein shake powder was gluten free. College will be a challenge for him, but he’s going to a university that seems to have a pretty high degree of awareness about celiac and other special dietary needs, so that’s a plus.

Our youngest is just entering her teen years. I imagine the next few years will be particularly challenging for her. And she’s more visibly upset about the diagnosis than our son. Still, she tries to be more positive than not.

This does demonstrate the importance of screening, especially if someone in your family is diagnosed with celiac disease. The one positive from this is that neither of my children yet have any celiac-related health problems and if they maintain a gluten free diet, they will never develop any of them. The immediate effect of celiac disease — damage to the villi of the small intestine — rarely produces visible symptoms until significant damage has been done. So if you wait until visible symptoms appear to test for celiac, then you’re waiting for the person to be hurt enough by the disease that it will take a lengthy period of time to recover from both the primary and the secondary effects of the disease. My kids have had relatively little damage done to their bodies at this point and do not yet have any of the secondary symptoms. With a moderate amount of self-discipline, they’ll never develop the myriad problems I developed. That, at least, is something positive.  I try to reinforce that with both of them.

A negative celiac blood panel does not rule out the possibility that you will develop the disease. Only a genetic test can do that. So if you have an immediate family member with celiac, it’s probably a good idea to still be screened every 3-5 years after a negative blood panel. It’s a simple blood test and trust me, it’s much better than having the disease ravage your body undetected for years.

I guess I would say that I’m crushed both kids inherited this from me, but glad that we caught it before it really hurt them. I’m also really glad the new health insurance law allows both kids to stay on my insurance until they are 26 and prohibits coverage denial for pre-existing conditions.

On a personal note, I had my first annual follow-up appointment today for the celiac-related osteoporosis in my spine. After a bit more than a year gluten free and taking 1800mg of calcium spaced out three times each day in 600mg doses, my osteoporosis has improved to the less serious osteopenia. Basically, I’m gaining bone density without medication, which is a really good thing. (Nobody tests osteoporosis medication on middle-aged men.) Hopefully next year I’ll be at or near the normal bone density range. That was really good news to hear. I’ve been as careful as I know how to be and it’s good to have my effort validated. I’m also feeling better than I’ve felt in years. Now I need to get back on a more disciplined diet and exercise regime. I used to be really good at both, but that’s one of the things that fell by the wayside as I felt worse and worse before my diagnosis.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 12 – Forever?

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

It seems appropriate to end this series with the question of the unending nature of “hell.” The question for me is and has always been different than the one that I most often hear asked in my particular circle. I don’t believe in the concentration camp, so I’m not concerned about whether or not people will be tortured forever for finite transgressions. I don’t believe hell is a “place” where people are put and from which they can later be released.

Rather, hell is our experience of the unveiled love of God when we don’t want him, but cannot escape him. Hell is being consumed by our passions when we can no longer express them outwardly in a renewed creation. In many ways, we create our own hell. So the question becomes one of whether or not we will still be able to change. Will we be trapped deeper and deeper in our delusion and rejection of God? Is there no longer any hope for us at all?

The overall consensus of the Church is that it is possible for human beings to so twist themselves that they can never be whole. Bishop Tom Wright describes it as a point where we strive so hard to become an ex-human being that God tells us that if that’s what we truly want, so be it. I recognize and appreciate the warning inherent in that consensus.

But I have been touched by the love of Christ when I was not seeking it. As such, it is hard for me to imagine any creature so twisted that the love of God cannot ever warm his heart. I cannot imagine any delusion so complete that the light of God cannot eventually illumine and dispel it. And so I tend to gravitate to voices like that of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian, who also could not believe that the love of God would not win out in the end.

It’s not the sort of universalism that’s common today, which presents either a passive God who accepts anything or a coercive God who forces people into “heaven” whether or not that’s what they want. Rather, having felt the least shadow of the reality of God, I’m incredulous that there’s any heart that cannot eventually be touched and changed by his unveiled love. I once saw a video of an aged monk (from Romania, I think). In it he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. He said, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I find it difficult to put into words, but that perception of reality struck a deep chord in me. If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for anyone.


An Orthodox Mind?

Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was reading (or actually re-reading, since I’ve written a past series based on it) an article this morning that prompted a variety of thoughts. As a result, I believe this post will be a more meandering one than I usually write as I wander down different corridors in my mind. The article is Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective by Valerie A. Karras. The article has something of an academic flavor to it, but I found it both interesting and easy to read. If you find anything I’ve excerpted from it today interesting, you may want to go read the entire article. The statement that caught my eye this morning and has been bouncing around my head lies in the following from the introduction of the article.

The absence in Eastern Christianity of a soteriology in terms of forensic justification is serious because Orthodoxy believes not only in ecumenism across geographical space, but especially “ecumenism in time”, i.e., the need to be consistent with the theological tradition of the Church from the earliest centuries. Thus, the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.  Sola scriptura means little to the Orthodox, who as opposed to placing Scripture over the Church, have a full sense of Scripture’s crucial but interrelated place within the Church’s continuing life:  the apostolic church communities which produced many of the books of the New Testament, the communities of the catholic Church which over a period of centuries determined which books circulating through various communities truly encapsulated the elements of the apostolic faith; the dogmas and Creed declared by the whole Church in response to the frequent controversies over the nature of the Trinity and of the theanthropos Jesus Christ, controversies which frequently arose precisely from dueling perspectives of which biblical texts were normative and of how those texts should be interpreted.

This of course does not mean that the Orthodox do not believe that each generation of Christians may receive new insights into Scripture, especially insights relevant in a given cultural context.  However, it does mean that the new insights must remain consistent with earlier ones, and that one or two Pauline passages (and one specific interpretation of those passages) are not considered theologically normative – particularly as a foundation for a soteriological dogma – unless the early and continuing tradition of the Church show them consistently to have been viewed as such.

Here is the specific phrase I want to highlight: the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church. I don’t think there’s any sense in which I can be said to have been formed with any sort of traditional Orthodox mind. Nevertheless, this expresses precisely something close to the core of the difficulty I have experienced over the past fifteen years or so as something like an American Protestant (or Evangelical) Christian. I’ve never tried to participate in any sort of religion without digging deeply into it. And I’ve always been very interested in history. In Christianity, those two coincide in ways that go beyond what you find in most religions. At the core of our faith lies a man who lived, taught, died, and was resurrected in a particular place, at a particular time, within the context of a particular clash of cultures. From that flows a community unlike any other ancient community — one that draws from all peoples and acts in love toward all, crossing cultural, ethnic, and class barriers — who says they live and act the way they do because this one man is their source and is actively leading them to act as true human beings. They essentially claim in some sense to be forming the true, renewed humanity from all the nations and that this true humanity is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a startling claim and it had a radical impact across the ancient world.

This connection makes Christianity more deeply and intimately connected to its entire body of historical practice leading back to Jesus of Nazareth and the apostolic witness, to the historical church which carried that witness, than is true of many religions. Since I became Christian, it has always been a problem to me when I could trace the origin of a belief or practice which contradicted previous belief or practice to a specific person or group. For instance, the practice of using unfermented grape juice in communion can easily be traced to the late nineteenth century and completely contradicts the universal prior Christian practice. The belief that communion is merely a memorial and is symbolic (using symbol in a modern sense to mean something that is not real and merely represents that which is real) can be traced to Zwingli in the sixteenth century and contradicts all earlier Christian belief and practice. The practice of “four bare walls and a pulpit” not only contradicts the universal practice of ancient Christianity, it directly contradicts the seventh ecumenical council.

Those are just three simple illustrations, but when I’ve pointed these and others out to my fellow Christians, the dissonance has not usually bothered them at all. And I’ve always had a very difficult time understanding that perspective. A phrase I’ve often heard goes something like this, “Well, I believe the bible says…” That’s always seemed like a very odd thing to say to me. The Holy Scriptures of Christianity are a rich, deep, and complex collection of texts. I could believe they say almost anything I wanted them to say. And I’m more than intelligent enough to find a basis in “the bible” for almost any interpretation I desired to make. So what? If my interpretation has no basis in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic witness, and the belief and practice of the church, then it’s merely another way to construct my own little god, my own religion, and ultimately it can never be any larger than my own limitations. I’ve traveled that road (though in non-Christian contexts) and I’m very familiar with where it ultimately leads. I have no desire to return to that place and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t need to coat it with a Christian veneer.

It is not possible to read or study any single human being and find an expression of the Christian faith that is without any error. We are all human. We are all limited. We all make mistakes at times. (Oddly, it tends to be Protestants — who tend to claim some sort of “soul competency” for believers to separately and individually interpret scripture — who tend to root beliefs and entire belief systems in the interpretations of individual Christians. Think about it. You’ll quickly see what I mean.) However, if the ecumenical witness of the ancient church failed to preserve the apostolic witness — a deeply historical witness, then it’s gone and there’s no way to recover it. If that’s true then we have no idea who God is or how to be Christian. I find no credibility in the restorationist narrative which postulates that the church apostasized in the first century and we have only recently recovered the true Christian faith.

So it seems that while I’ve never been Orthodox, I entered Christianity with a mindset remarkably similar to that of Orthodox Christians. That likely explains why I believed so many things that the Orthodox believed long before I was consciously aware of modern Orthodoxy. I drew from the same sources. (It doesn’t explain why the Jesus Prayer came to me. I had never read any of the works or discussions of the Jesus Prayer beforehand.) Within that context, new insights and understandings are fine. We should build on the work of those who came before us in the faith. And as Christianity interacts with new cultures, new and beautiful facets will be revealed. God cannot be compassed, so there is always something new to say about him. But God is also not inconsistent. So anything new that is revealed must be consistent with Christianity not just across place, but across time or it should be almost automatically suspect.

That’s the main point that was bouncing around my head, but as I re-read the article, it seemed worthwhile to me to highlight some additional thoughts in it.

Thus, Orthodoxy understands human sin primarily not as deliberate and willful opposition to God, but rather as an inability to know ourselves and God clearly.  It is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard his voice in another direction and kept moving away from him, either directly or obliquely.  It is illuminating that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”.  Despite our orientation toward God, we “miss the mark” because, not only does the clouded spiritual vision of our fallen condition make it difficult for us to see God clearly, but we fail to understand even ourselves truly; thus, we constantly do things which make us feel only incompletely and unsatisfactorily good or happy because we don’t recognize that God is himself the fulfillment of our innate desire and natural movement.  Explaining Maximos’ theology, Andrew Louth offers, “… with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfilment.” Ultimately, it is not our natural human will that is deficient, but rather how we perceive it and the way, or mode, by which we express it; as Louth sourly opines, “it is a frustrating and confusing business.”

The image of hearing God in a storm, but not being able to tell the direction is a compelling one to me. We all not only interpret texts and experiences in order to understand them, we are constantly reinterpreting our past experience in the light of our present understanding and position in life. From where I now stand, I can see so much of my first thirty years of life as attempts to follow a voice with almost no sense of the direction from which it came. I was never one who simply didn’t care about the deeper questions of life. I was always pursuing something, following some path, seeking something. Even as a Christian, it’s often been a journey of steps in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. Every human being is created in the image of God and thus has within themselves the capacity to turn their will toward God. But that image is tarnished and cloudy. We see through a glass darkly, as though lost in fog, or from the midst of a sandstorm. It is truly “a frustrating and confusing business.”

The question is whether Luther’s soteriology – and, for that matter, other forms of Western atonement soteriology – are truly based on the christology of the early Fathers, especially those behind the dogmatic formulations of the ecumenical councils.  Both the dogmatic definitions and the supplementary patristic writings surrounding the christological controversies seem to indicate a negative answer to the question.  Far from emphasizing atonement as satisfaction or a forensic notion of justification, these writings express an understanding of human salvation rooted not simply in a particular activity of Jesus Christ, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.  Gregory of Nyssa, writing more than a millennium before the development of the Lutheran doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” in the context of the controversy over the extreme form of Arianism known as Eunomianism, rejects the notion that one could be “totally righteous” in a legal but not existential sense.  Human beings are not restored to communion with God through an act of spiritual prestidigitation where God looks and thinks he sees humanity, but in fact is really seeing his Son. Justification must be as organic and existential as sin is:

I always found the idea that somehow you could be “righteous” in a legal or forensic sense without ever actually being righteous (whatever you might take that to be) a very strange idea indeed. My first concern as I stepped deeper toward Christian faith was to try to understand this Jesus of Nazareth. As I began to understand and then began to know Jesus (though sometimes it felt like I was rediscovering an old and intimate acquaintance), I began to wonder more how to be Christian, how to follow him, how to participate in his life, how to become more truly human. The idea that when God looks at me he somehow sees Jesus instead always struck me not only as a bizarre, but as a deeply undesirable and even repellent idea. I was moving down this Christian path in order to hide or be hidden from God. I wanted to know him and that always meant he had to truly know me. We all want to be known. And it’s a tragedy of our existence that we often are not known, even by those who are closest to us, because we are trapped in fear. Most of that fear lies in the idea that if we are truly know we will be rejected. It seems to me that in this perspective of God, people have simply transferred that fear to God. But the truth of Christianity is that God already knows us. We can’t find him in the storm, but he sees us clearly and fully. And he loves us. He loves us so much that he joined his nature to our fallen nature, the Word became flesh, became sarx, became all that we are, so that we could have true communion with God.

Lucian Turcescu has rightly criticized Orthodoxy for focusing so strongly on theosis that it has tended to ignore the “justification” side of the coin.  However, I disagree with him that, simply because Jewish notions of justification had forensic significance, therefore Paul, or the early church, understood the term in the same legalistic way (in fact, Paul’s point in Romans is precisely to rid Jewish Christians of their forensic understanding of justification rooted in the Levitical law).  Orthodoxy may emphasize theosis (correlated to “sanctification” in the Lutheran model) and see one continuous relational process between the human person and God, but it does not ignore the distinction between justification and sanctification.  Rather, the Eastern Church recognizes two purposes to the incarnation, which may be identified with justification and sanctification:  restoring human nature to its prelapsarian state of “justification” and providing the possibility for true union with God through participation, respectively.  The former purpose was necessitated by the Fall and has been the focus of Western soteriology.  For the East the restoration of human nature to its prelapsarian potential (justification) explains why the Son of God took on humanity’s fallen human nature, i.e., why it was necessary for Christ to die and be resurrected.  Hence, Orthodoxy agrees in affirming the free nature of that restoration through grace (in fact, Orthodoxy proclaims the gratuitous nature of our justification even more strongly than most of Western Christianity since it is given to all humanity, not just the “elect” or those receiving prevenient grace). 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.

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.

Jesus did not become human in order to rescue us from our fallen state. He took on our fallen nature — become mortal — and died and was resurrected in order to rescue and restore us. But with or without the fall, he had to become human in order for us to ever have true communion with God. As creatures, that’s something we could never accomplish. God had to come to us — become one with us — before we could be one with him.

And yet, salvation is an ongoing process of existential faith:  as St. Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), which the Joint Declaration cites in paragraph 12.  And so, we do indeed “work out our own salvation”.  Orthodoxy soteriology is synergistic, but not in the perceived Pelagian sense which has resulted in such a pejorative connotation to the word synergy in Protestant thought. We do cooperate, or participate, in our salvation precisely because salvation is relational – it is union with God – and relationships are not a one-way street.  As human beings created in the image of God, we respond freely to God’s love and to his restoration of our fallen human nature.  As Kallistos Ware asserts, “As a Trinity of love, God desired to share his life with created persons made in his image, who would be capable of responding to him freely and willingly in a relationship of love.  Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.”

Many of the views or perspectives of God that permeate Christianity today do not actually perceive God as a Trinity of love, even if they use the words. “Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.” That really says it all. The amazing thing in creation is that God somehow made space for that freedom. He is its sovereign Lord and sustains all of it from moment to moment. But he is love and thus begrudges none of creation its existence. (That’s why annihilationism is ultimately wrong.) And yet, even as God permeates and sustains everything, even our own bodies, he has made space for an element of uncertainty in the very fabric of creation. We have the ability to love or not to love. And the ripples of the impact of that choice echo through creation far beyond our immediate sphere of experience. When we love, we participate in the healing and renewal of creation. When we do not, we participate in the disordering and destruction of creation.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 11 – Assurance of Salvation or What Sort of God Do You Worship?

Posted: July 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In the Christian circles in which I move, a question of “assurance” often surfaces. That was never a question that troubled me, so it took me a while to discern why it seemed to be an issue for so many. I finally realized that, like so many other questions, it was a matter of how you viewed ultimate reality and how you perceived God. To return to the metaphor of the two-story house, the assurance many people seem to be seeking is the assurance that they will be allowed onto the second floor instead of being locked in the basement. In this picture, God is thus perceived as the ultimate arbiter deciding who goes where. He might be an angry God who will let you sneak onto the second floor if you’re hiding behind his son so he can’t see you. He might be a fair arbiter measuring the balance of good and evil in your life. He might have a checklist and will let you onto the second floor if you have the right boxes checked. Or he could be the arbitrary and capricious God of hard Calvinism who had the secret lists of “saved” and “damned” drawn up before the whole show began. But in this conception of reality, some sort of God like that is at work. And in the face of such a God, people seek assurance that he isn’t going to throw them in the basement.

But I don’t believe in that God. I’ve never believed in that God. As I’ve outlined in this series, I believe there will be a time when all creation is renewed, the veil between heaven and earth is no more, and God is fully revealed as all in all. Most importantly, I believe in resurrection and everything that resurrection implies. I believe in the good God who loves mankind. I believe in the God who became one of us so that we might be healed and be able to be one with him. I believe in the God who is not willing that any should perish. I believe in the God who has done and is doing everything that can be done in love to save every human being. I believe in a God of uncompromising love. I believe in the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

But as love does not seek its own way and does not coerce, since I’ve become Christian I’ve understood that the question is not and has never been whether or not God loves me and wants me. God’s answer to that question is and has always been an unchanging and unqualified yes. The question I must answer with my life is whether or not I love and want God. And that’s a very different question indeed. I have believed many things over the course of my life. I have changed my beliefs more than once. I know I want to want this unique God. But I also know myself too well to be “assured” that I will never change. The more I get to know this God, the less likely such a change seems, but I can’t have present certainty about my own future choices and decisions.

My particular group of Christians has a belief which, in the vernacular, is often rendered, “Once saved, always saved.” I think I’ve come to understand that what they actually mean is that once God puts your name on the guest list letting you onto the second floor, he’ll never scratch it out. And I suppose, if that’s your perception of God and reality, it might even be a comforting idea. You don’t have to worry that your name will be taken off the “nice” list and placed on the “naughty” list for something you have or haven’t done.

But I’ve never found the “once saved, always saved” idea anything less than appalling, though it took me some years to understand the underlying reasons I reacted so differently. To me, this concept portrayed first a God of love who extends an invitation to all human beings and freely allows them to respond as they will. So far, so good. But having once given your assent to this God, he then forces you to want him from that point onward. He changes from a God of love to a God of coercion. It’s as though that one-time assent becomes permission to rape my will from that point forward. We are supposed to find true freedom in Christ, but this is not freedom.

I’ll also note that the sort of absolute assurance people seem to be seeking doesn’t exist in our Holy Scriptures. It’s not because God changes or hides anything from us. It’s because we change and we lie to ourselves. A theme we often see in Jesus’ parables is one of surprise by everyone in the end. There will be people “saved” who never fully understood that the life they lived was one of service and love for Jesus. And there will be those who had convinced themselves they wanted Jesus only to discover that they really never wanted him at all. That lack of certainty has never bothered me. In fact, I see it as inevitable. It doesn’t reveal anything arbitrary about God. In fact, that’s the only view that sufficiently allows for both the love of God and for our own free will and capacity for delusion.

As a final thought on this topic, I’ll note that while the truncated view of God and salvation may have “worked” to some extent over the last few hundred years, it’s losing any effectiveness it might have had in our increasingly pluralistic world. It once was true in our part of the world that the perception of reality as a two-story house with a basement was something of a cultural default. And as such, all you really had to do was convince people to take whatever actions you thought needed to be taken to punch their ticket to the second story. Those days are fading and we are entering a period that in some ways is more like that of the ancient world. Before I became Christian, I believed different things at different points in my life, but none of them included the caricature of heaven and hell from the two-story universe with a basement perspective. Most of the time I believed in some form of transmigration of souls. In my more Hindu periods, I perceived the fact that we are reborn more as a problem than not. At other times, I perceived eternal rebirth as a beautiful cycle of life. Regardless, though, the question, “Do you know where you will go when you die?” never had much impact on me. Nor does it have much impact on me now. I simply don’t believe that question has anything to do with the Christian concept of salvation.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 14

Posted: July 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 14

39.  The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a man, having achieved some things and eager to achieve others through this divine power, never belittles anyone. For he knows that just as God has helped him and freed him from many passions and difficulties, so, when God wishes, He is able to help all men, especially those pursuing the spiritual way for His sake. And if in His providence He does not deliver all men together from their passions, yet like a good and loving physician He heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.

God’s ongoing purpose is not forgiveness. He has never had a problem forgiving anyone and in Jesus there is the fullness of “the forgiveness of sins.” No, God’s purpose has always been to heal us so we are able to live in communion with him and with each other. And that is a much greater and much richer purpose. We are all damaged creatures. We all need to be healed. But as with the doctors with whom we have forgiveness, if we do not take the medicine or if we do not do the exercises, we will not experience healing. The eucharist has been called the medicine of immortality. I believe there is much truth in that imagery. Similarly, the ascetic disciplines are exercises prescribed to strengthen us. It’s not enough to be forgiven. We need to become truly human.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 10 – Theosis or Deification

Posted: July 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

If our basic problem is that we don’t want God and are not able to live within him and in union with him, what’s the solution? This question points to the deeper meaning and accomplishment of the work of the mystery of the Incarnation. It’s why Christians traditionally believed and taught that Christ would have become one of us even if mankind had not “fallen.” He would not have had to die in that instance, but without the Incarnation we have no means for true union with God.

As I’ve discussed on posts regarding what it means that God is holy, he is the wholly other uncreated one. We are mere creatures and have no capacity on our own for communion with God. In the Incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth joined the divine nature with our human nature. By assuming our nature, he not only defeated death and provided the means for our healing, he bridged that divide. As St. Athanasius wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.

God has accomplished all that is needed for our union with him, which is our true salvation. It’s a done work. The potential for that union through Christ lies within every single human being. Truly, everything God planned to do was accomplished or finished by Christ. The question before us is not what God wants or desires or has done. Rather, the question we must answer is a much more difficult one. Do we want God?

That’s not an idle question. Answering it is a matter of a life lived. I know in my own life there are times when I have grown, at least a little, in communion in God. And there are times when I have not wanted God at all. God is constant. We are inconstant. But if we will turn what little of our will we can toward God, he is there with all the grace (which is to say himself) that we need to move toward union with him. Baby steps are often all we can manage. The question is less about how much or how little we are able to do and more about whether or not we choose to become the sort of person who wants God.

Salvation, then, is becoming one with the three Persons of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and one with each other in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. We maintain our distinctive personhood even in perfect union. Hell is what we do to ourselves and to others when we don’t want God and when we hate our fellow human being. There is no standing still in this process. We are either moving toward union with God and embracing life or we are seeking a non-existence we are helpless to achieve as we turn from God.

Do I want God? It’s a haunting question. I believe that much of the time I want to want God. At least I now know that this particular God who was made fully known to us in Jesus of Nazareth loves and wants me. For much of my life, I did not recognize and understand that truth. I find he is a God worth wanting.