Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 13

Posted: July 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

35.  Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done. For example, fasting and vigils, prayer and psalmody, acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good, but when performed for the sake of self-esteem they are not good.

This text relates a simple point that I think is often overlooked or misunderstood, sometimes in odd ways. There are Christian groups today that, for fear of doing something from the wrong motive, actually do very little at all for worship. We are ensouled bodies (for lack of a better way of saying), but some treat it as wrong to worship in bodily ways. But our problem has often been less a matter of what we do or don’t do, but the motives behind our action and inaction. Yes, it is possible to act in evil ways, but for most of us much of what we do each day is at least somewhat positive or good. But even an act which would otherwise be good, when done from evil motives, becomes twisted. I would say that doing good things from evil motives is still better than simply doing evil things. Nevertheless, acting from evil motives will rarely shape us in better ways. Such a life will not draw us closer to God or turn us into people who want God.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

If the Christian vision of ultimate reality does not revolve around a concentration camp in the midst of paradise, what does it then involve? As I discussed earlier in the series, God is seen as everywhere present, filling and sustaining all things. Although that is both the present and future reality, that glory is now veiled. We do not fully or readily perceive the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But that will change one day. It’s the tension between Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. On the one hand, the world is filled with his glory right now and has been from the beginning of creation. But one day, it will be filled with the full knowledge of the glory. It’s the image we see in Habakkuk 2:14.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

As the waters cover the sea? My first reaction to that verse was that the waters are the sea, but as I learned more of the ancient Jewish perception of reality, I came to understand that the “sea” stood for chaos and evil. The “monsters” come from the sea. This is the image of God’s healing waters covering and healing a disordered reality as creation, which is already filled with the glory of the Lord, becomes filled with the full knowledge of that glory. We see similar imagery in Revelation when we are presented with the healing streams and are told there is “no more sea.”

If God’s all-sustaining glory is no longer veiled and suffuses all creation, then one thing is immediately apparent. We will all experience exactly the same ultimate reality. The glory of God, the light of God, the love of God will be inescapable. We will understand and perceive God suffusing all creation, even our own bodies. There will be no place we can turn where that will not be true. And if that’s the case, then we can’t speak of some people (or any created being) or places being treated differently from others. It’s not the case that some are punished and others aren’t.

No, the question becomes rather, “How will I experience the fire of God’s love? Will it be warmth and comfort to me? Or will it be a consuming fire?” We will not be tormented because we have been confined somewhere and tortured by some external agent. No, if we are tormented, it will be because we do not want God yet cannot escape his presence.

Or perhaps we will lock ourselves in our own interior world consumed by passions we can no longer express outwardly. I think of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Huddled in the midst of a creation made new, with a feast before them, in the very presence of Aslan, they perceive themselves as in a dark, rank stable eating garbage and drinking dirty water. They will not be fooled again and render themselves incapable of sensing the reality around them. They are bound in delusion. I believe we all have the capacity for such delusion within us.

As I said earlier, hell cannot have the same sort of reality that creation – heaven and earth – has. It’s not a place where God is not, for no such place exists. It cannot be a place that is not renewed within creation. “Behold, I make all things new!” proclaims the Lamb. Hell can only be the experience of a renewed creation and of a God of relentless and consuming love by those who do not want either one and are not formed to live within that reality. The seeds of our own hell are within each of us. As the Didache opens, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.


Saturday Evening Blog Post

Posted: July 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post

For the June edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, What is the source of our oneness?. I also considered some of the other posts from June, including the early posts in my series on Heaven & Earth (& Hell), but finally settled on this post.

As always, I encourage all readers here to check out the Saturday Evening Blog Posts. There are always interesting posts to read. And if you blog, consider adding a post yourself.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 8 – The Concentration Camp and Separation from God

Posted: July 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

There are two common interpretations of hell today that I think are particular troublesome. Both are variations of “the basement” in the two-story house metaphor I discussed in an earlier post. Both tend to be linked to descriptions of heaven and hell as “actual places” that are in some sense distinct and separate from our reality. And both portray God and reality in ways I find disturbing and inconsistent with traditional Christian views.

I tend to think of the first view as the “Concentration Camp.” There are a lot of variations on this view, but its central feature is that those human beings who are not “saved” (with differing definitions and sometimes different words used) will be relegated by God to some “actual” location or place where they will suffer in torment forever. In a common SBC version of this view, the earth is seen as fleeting and will eventually be destroyed. That reduces the metaphor of the two story house with a basement to just the second floor and the basement. Those are the only facets of reality that endure forever.

The problems with the Concentration Camp perspective of ultimate reality seem legion to me. The immediate question to me seems obvious. This view places a gulag in the middle of “paradise” where people we have loved are being tortured. In what possible sense is that paradise? Doesn’t that really just turn “paradise” into another form of hell?

This view also turns God into the Torturer-in-Chief. Instead of a God even vaguely like anything we see in Jesus of Nazareth, we see an angry God who has a problem with forgiveness. We see a God whose thirst for blood and suffering in recompense for “wrongs” committed against him can never be satiated. I’m unable to understand why anyone would worship this God. It makes no sense to me at all.

Probably in reaction against the above, I’ve often heard hell described in a similar overall framework, but with the torture characterized instead as the pain of “eternal separation from God.” This view is not as bad as the above and, as we’ll explore later, has elements of truth in it. However, the way it is typically explained has some serious problems.

The first problem is the way this idea is usually framed. A typical introduction to this idea begins along these lines. “God is holy and can’t be around evil.” There are a variety of ways this idea can be phrased, but that’s the gist of it. I’ve explore elsewhere what “holy” actually means, so I won’t go into that here. The idea that God can’t be around evil is deeply flawed and has no connection to anything I can find in the Holy Scriptures or Christian tradition. After all, if we see and understand God through Jesus of Nazareth, what do we see? We see Jesus embracing sinners and unclean people. We see Jesus eating and drinking with the people with whom you don’t dine. And he takes a lot of flak for it.

But that’s hardly a new image of God. One of the very first pictures we get of God in the creation narrative shows him seeking out the man and the woman, caring for them, and clothing them. God’s entire relationship with Israel is one of them being unfaithful and God seeking them out again and forgiving them. God has no problem being around evil. Evil undoubtedly has a problem surviving in God’s light, but God is not driven from the presence of evil. Evil and darkness do not have the same reality God has.

From there, the “separation from God” view devolves into a sort of “concentration camp lite” idea. God can’t be around evil, so if your evil is not “covered” by Jesus so God doesn’t see it anymore, you have to be relegated to this actual place where you suffer not from direct torture but by being deprived of the light and presence of God – because God is not in this “hell”.

And that, of course, creates another problem. Tied to the idea that God can’t be around evil is the idea that Hell is an actual place where God is absent. But that utterly contradicts the true Christian view of reality. Nothing has independent existence. In the Christian view, as I’ve already explored, everything was created by Christ and is sustained moment to moment by him. As we see in Isaiah, all creation is full of God’s glory.

It’s not possible for anything or anyone in the whole creation to exist and actually be “separated” from God. There is no place where God is not present, filling, and actively sustaining it nor is it possible for such a place to ever exist.

These are hardly the only two flawed ideas about heaven, earth, and hell. But I wanted to highlight them because they seem to be very widespread in the circles in which I move. A variation of one or the other of these ideas probably describes what the majority of Christians I personally know in “real-life” believes. Many if not most of them practice our faith better than I do, so at the individual level these distortions do not necessarily create problems. But when they begin to dominate our collective proclamation, these ideas and the God they portray are often rightly perceived as repellent and easily dismissed.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 12

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 12

32. There are three things that impel us towards what is holy: natural instincts, angelic powers and probity of intention. Natural instincts impel us when, for example, we do to others what we would wish them to do to us (cf. Luke 6:31), or when we see someone suffering deprivation or in need and naturally feel compassion. Angelic powers impel us when, being ourselves impelled to something worthwhile, we find we are providentially helped and guided. We are impelled by probity of intention when, discriminating between good and evil, we choose the good.

33. There are also three things that impel us towards evil: passions, demons and sinfulness of intention. Passions impel us when, for example, we desire something beyond what is reasonable, such as food which is unnecessary or untimely, or a woman who is not our wife or for a purpose other than procreation, or else when we are excessively angered or irritated by, for instance, someone who has dishonored or injured us. Demons impel us when, for example, they catch us off our guard and suddenly launch a violent attack upon us, stirring up the passions already mentioned and others of a similar nature. We are impelled by sinfulness of intention when, knowing the good, we choose evil instead.

I wanted to highlight the above two texts together. The number three had a sacred meaning in ancient Judaism and, considered in light of the three Persons of the Trinity, took on even greater significance in Christianity. In these texts, St. Maximos draws parallels between the forces which move us toward good and those which move us toward evil in groups of three.

Our natural instincts, as creatures in the image of God impel us toward good, while our unbridled passions impel us toward evil and seek to rule us. Angels seek to help us and guide us toward good while demons seek to fuel our passions. But the most important of all, I think, are those cusps where we know the difference between good and evil and willfully and deliberately choose the one or the other. Every such choice, large or small, is important for those choices shape our will. The more we choose evil, the easier we find it to will evil and the harder we find it to will good. And the reverse is true as well.

Our wills need to be healed, but they can only be healed through choosing good. And at every such point at which we can exercise our will for good, an evil alternative is always available and may often seem more attractive.

Healing our wills is also essential in our overall salvation. This is why the determination that Jesus had both a human and divine will in the sixth ecumenical council is so important to our faith. If Jesus did not have a human will or if his human will was wholly subsumed in his divine will, then our wills are not healed in Christ and we have no hope of true healing. Our human will can be healed because Jesus assumed a human will and willfully remained the faithful and good man at every point of intention and decision in the face of every temptation to do otherwise. He truly became one of us and in him we are healed.