Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

Posted: November 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 21

63. Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offenses are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.

Until I read this text by St. Maximos I had only thought of confession in the latter form he describes. It makes perfect sense that giving thanks for blessings received is a form of confession. We acknowledge that all good things come from God and we humble ourselves just as we do when we confess wrongs we have committed. It’s all too easy to convince ourselves that we have earned whatever blessings we have received and that can be a fatal trap.


Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

Posted: November 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 7 – Creation and Matter

In order to grasp the Christian narrative of resurrection, I think it’s necessary to understand the larger narrative of creation and the nature of reality within which it’s embedded. While that’s a lengthy and complex topic in its own right, I’m going to explore a few facets in this post which I think are particularly important.

Matter is not eternal and creation was not something God accomplished by shaping or forming already existing material. Nor is reality marked by an eternal cycle as it is in some religions. In the Jewish and Christian narrative, God is said to have created ex nihilo, which is to say out of nothing. However, that idea itself has to be unpacked to be understood. As Christians, we begin by saying the only eternal is the uncreated God. The Father, the Son — begotten, not made, and the Holy Spirit proceeding eternally from the Father have always existed in a self-sufficient, perfect communion of love. God did not create because he lacked anything or needed anything. Creation, rather, is an overflow of love.

I began to understand that truth, when I heard someone (possibly Fr. Thomas Hopko) say that describing creation as ex nihilo is an incomplete statement. When we say that, we then have to ask: Where did the nothing come from? Think about that question for a minute. Let it fill you with its wonder. While it’s true that God fills and sustains everything, from the Christian perspective we would not say that God is everything. No, out of his overflow of love, God has made room — made space for nothing and time to order it — within which a creation that is truly other can be spoken and can grow. This is a great mystery, but creation is not merely an extension of God, but rather is free even as it is wholly filled and lovingly sustained moment by moment by God. While the Christian understanding is often described as panentheist (not to be confused with pantheist), I remember hearing N.T. Wright once say that a better term might be the-en-panist (God in all).

The only other perspective I know which can be described as panentheist is that of Brahman within Hinduism. But that’s a very different sort of perspective. I can’t possible summarize it in a paragraph, but it does hold that all that can be said to exist is Brahman, even as Brahman is also transcendent, or more than the sum of all that exists. It’s also a cyclical view of reality in marked contrast to the Christian view. Moreover, there is not the demarcation between the created and the uncreated which exists within Christianity. It’s a fundamentally different narrative.

When you perceive reality as the free overflow of love of a Creator God, the Christian story begins to come into focus and make sense. Of course, the God who loves it would see this creation as fundamentally good and the ones who were created according to the image of Christ in order to be formed into his likeness are seen by God as very good. While they are no less awe-inspiring, the lengths to which this God will go to rescue his creation make sense. They fit. And we also see that the Word would have always had to become flesh for us to ultimately be united with God. We did not have that capacity. If creation had not turned from God, Jesus would not have had to die to defeat death. But he always had to become one with us so that we might be one with God. Salvation is nothing less than union with Christ.

So then we see resurrection for what it is. It is God’s act of new creation for the human being. Death has been defeated and God makes us new. But Christ’s act of new creation does not stop with us. “Behold, I make all things new.” All creation has been rescued and the image we see is one of a new or renewed humanity serving truly as priests within a renewed creation. Unless you glimpse that whole picture, I’m not sure the individual bits and pieces make much sense.


Reflections on Resurrection 6 – Angels?

Posted: November 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 6 – Angels?

I have to confess I feel almost embarrassed to write this post. Yet I have listened and read and it seems to me there is some real confusion among at least some people on this point, so I will say it as simply as I can.

We do not become angels after we die.

Or demons. Or spirit guides. Or any other sort of spiritual or disembodied power.

We don’t know a lot about angels and the other spiritual powers and beings who are part of the fabric of creation. We do know that angels are created beings of spirit. We know they also have free will, though a will unmediated by a material body seems to manifest in different ways. It seems they are either wholly serving God or wholly opposed to him with little of the gray areas and gradual change with which we live. But we mostly know they are different creatures from us.

They are spirit. We are embodied. That is a fundamental and eternal difference. Angels don’t become human beings and human beings don’t become angels. We have bodies and there is really no concept of immaterial existence for human beings within Christianity. Our narrative is one of resurrection.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

Posted: November 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

62. Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

We do not tell the truth — even to ourselves. (Perhaps especially to ourselves.)

That is a universal truth and unless it is healed, we have no way to move forward in our faith or in our love. One weakness in most of Protestantism is its failure to recognize this truth. Our Holy Scriptures and tradition speak plainly of the need of confession and the inadequacy of private, internal confession. If we do not learn to speak the truth about ourselves out loud in the presence of another human being, we cannot and will not change. It does not seem to me that the primary purpose of confession is penance. Roman Catholic practice and teaching over the last thousand years varies a fair degree on this topic, but to the extent it has focused on doing penance, I believe it has somewhat missed the mark. Rather, we need to learn to see ourselves truly (but slowly since too much truth at once is more apt to destroy us than not) so that we can change. And we do not fundamentally need to simply change our behavior. We need to change who we are. (Behavior changes usually follow such transformations, but they are not the goal as much as one tool toward that goal.)

There is tremendous power in the act of speaking a truth about ourselves aloud and in the hearing of another.


Gluten Free and Now Dairy Free

Posted: November 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Sigh.

That’s a significant part of my reaction to the subject of this post.

As I’ve maintained a gluten free diet and healed from the fairly extensive damage to my body, there have been certain symptoms that have not improved and which have even gotten worse. I mostly put them out of my mind and tried not to think about them — mostly because I had a pretty good idea what they likely meant.

Finally my wife put her foot down and told me I had to figure out what was wrong so I could continue getting well. She suggested that as a result of the damage from celiac disease I might not be able to tolerate dairy any longer. Of course, I’m reasonably well-read and already knew that a fair number of those with celiac also can’t tolerate dairy. I just didn’t want to be one of them. I really didn’t want to have to give up yet another major food group.

But I couldn’t just keep running away from it, especially with my wife insisting I deal with it, so I decided to try a few weeks on a strict dairy-free diet. And I quickly began improving which, since I didn’t change anything else in my diet, pretty much confirms that I can’t tolerate dairy anymore.

I know it’s good to identify what’s wrong with you so you can get well. But I would be lying if I said that it didn’t piss me off. I like dairy. Oh well, I know I can deal with it, but an increasingly restricted diet is still a pain.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 19

Posted: November 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 19

60. The origin and consummation of every man’s salvation is wisdom, which initially produces fear but when perfected gives rise to loving desire. Or, rather, initially and providentially wisdom  manifests itself for our sake as fear, so as to make us who aspire to wisdom desist from evil; but ultimately it exists in its natural state for its own sake as loving desire, so as to fill with spiritual mirth those who have abandoned all existing things in order to dwell with it.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I run across too many Christian teachers today who seem to feel that fear is also the culmination of wisdom. It’s not. When we begin to understand this God and the breadth and depth of his love, and we see how we have turned from our only source of life to things which have no life, it is wise to be afraid, for fear can motivate us to turn toward life instead. But if we continue to live in fear, we remain stunted and cannot know God. Perfect love drives out fear.


Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Posted: November 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 5 – The Physical World Is Good

Resurrection affirms a simple truth. The physical material world around us is fundamentally a good creation of God — and that includes our bodies.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the way many American Christians perceive reality today. As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of Christians perceive this body as a prison from which we need to escape. And at least some Christians see this world as something evil that God is going to one day destroy. Neither of these are accurate perceptions and are even reminiscent of some of the most ancient Christian heresies — which held (to oversimplify) that spirit was good and matter was evil.

Our bodies are not prisons we escape. Christianity does not promise a future as spirit like Plato’s happy philosophers. Rather, resurrection is the story of a renewed embodied humanity caring for a renewed physical creation. If we deny the goodness of the material creation, we deny the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. From the Christian perspective, our bodies will be ours forever and the physical, tangible actions we take in and through our bodies have eternal significance. Our actions matter.

Hinduism offers a very different and contrasting narrative. (I have to make my standard disclaimer. It’s not possible to truly reduce the Indian or Vedic religions or paths to a single convenient label. Nor is it possible to summarize without caricaturing that richly diverse and complex tapestry. So anything I write here will be vastly oversimplified. Still I think some of the underlying contrasts offer insights worth considering in this discussion.) It carries the sense that we are ruled by the illusion of a material world distinct from the spiritual reality. That illusion is personified as Maya. Now, Maya is not false or evil, just as Brahman would not be considered good or true. The illusion itself has its own reality, but we should learn to see through it truly. Spirit is the knower of the field and matter is the field. The former is superior and the latter inferior. In a sense, the material reality is illusion and through our inability to see truly, we are trapped on the wheel of suffering.

Once again, that’s so oversimplified it’s almost a caricature, but I think the contrast is helpful. What is real? In many systems, there is a division between spiritual and material. It could be the division of Platonic (or neoplatonic) systems in which the material imprisons the spiritual. Or the material could be more illusory and the underlying reality is purely spiritual. Or, in the case of materialists, all is material and the spiritual is denied.

The Christian perspective holds a different dividing lens to reality. The true division is between the created and the Uncreated — and only God is in the latter category. The created includes both the material and the spiritual. Moreover, it’s a good creation. Yes, it is marred and broken by the freedom God grants creation — the freedom to love and the freedom to despise. (It’s silly to assert that all was right with creation before some archetype of mankind sinned. We are told that even before man existed some of the spiritual beings in creation had turned against God.) It’s a freedom of response that appears woven into the fabric of creation itself. Christianity proclaims the fundamental reality and goodness of both the spiritual and the material. And resurrection is the crowning glory of its rescue and renewal.

If you are Christian, pay attention to the way your tradition speaks about creation and about our own bodies. What is the underlying thread? Is it affirmation or despite? Have we lost sight of what the Incarnation and Resurrection mean?


Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

Posted: November 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Saturday Evening Blog Post – October Edition

For this month’s edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I selected the first post in my ongoing Reflections on Resurrection series. I almost selected the unplanned post, 15 Authors, that I threw together after being tagged on Halloween. I enjoyed putting that one together quite a bit. But the things I’m trying to say about resurrection (the Christian narrative) as opposed to the many competing narratives about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being are closer to my heart.


Reflections on Resurrection 4 – Reincarnation

Posted: November 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I confess I was quite surprised when a recent Pew study revealed that 22% of American Christians believed in reincarnation. In fact, that’s probably one of the things that has been percolating in the back of mind leading to this present series. I don’t have a negative view of a belief in reincarnation in any of its forms. As I explained in the introductory post of this series, reincarnation was a significant facet in my childhood spiritual formation. And as an adult, before I found myself drawn into Christian faith, it was also a central component of my own belief system. For me, the view of reality (and what it means to be a human being) embedded within the concept reincarnation is better than all competing views with the notable exception of resurrection. If I ever ceased believing in the Christian narrative of resurrection, I have no doubt I would return to some belief system that incorporated reincarnation.

At it’s core, reincarnation presupposes that some essence of who and what you are (let’s call that your soul) existed and lived before your body was conceived and that same essence will endure after the death of your body. In some perspectives, that constant cycle is a central part of the problem and the goal is to bring the cycle to an end, typically through the release of your sense of individual identity and reunification with the greater whole. In other perspectives, the cycle of rebirth is positive and beautiful. However, this view requires some concept of the preexistence and the immortality of the soul. Something that is truly you must have existed before you were born and be independent of your physical body, so it can persist and animate a future body.

While I hold no animus toward the narrative of reincarnation and, indeed, think highly of it, I also recognize that it is utterly incompatible with the Christian narrative of resurrection. Christianity holds that we were created — body and soul — upon our conception. We had no preexistence and thus no former lives. Christianity shows us that we are integrated beings, that we are, in fact, our bodies — even if we also transcend our bodies in some sense. And Christianity proclaims that we will all be resurrected bodily in a manner continuous with the person we now are. Obviously, if we have had many lives and many bodies, such a proclamation is nonsense.

I don’t grasp what the 22% of American Christians who say they believe in reincarnation think Christianity teaches. I don’t see how they could believe in bodily resurrection unless, perhaps, they believe they get to pick which of their many bodies will be resurrected? That particular statistic baffles me. Resurrection and reincarnation just don’t mix.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 18

Posted: November 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 18

51. The first type of dispassion is complete abstention from the actual committing of sin, and it may be found in those beginning the spiritual way. The second is the complete rejection in the mind of all assent to evil thoughts; this  is found in those who have achieved an intelligent participation in virtue. The third is the complete quiescence of passionate desire; this is found in those who contemplate noetically the inner essences of visible things through then outer forms. The fourth type of dispassion is the complete purging even of passion-free images; this is found in those who have made their intellect a pure, transparent mirror of God through spiritual knowledge and contemplation. If, then, you have cleansed yourself from the committing of acts prompted by the passions, have freed yourself from mental assent to them, have put a stop to the stimulation of passionate desire, and have purged your intellect of even the passion-free images of what were once objects of the passions, you have attained the four general types of dispassion. You have emerged from the realm of matter and material things, and have entered the sphere of intelligible realities, noetic, tranquil and divine.

The nous (which is often translated mind in English translations of the New Testament) is a concept that does not seem to have a real equivalent in our language. It’s not really the rational mind or thoughts. It’s more the center of our being that can know God mystically, directly, and truly. It’s that part of us that can see reality as it is rather than as we imagine it to be. It’s the part in us that was dead and which was healed by Jesus. When Paul speaks of being “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” it’s the nous to which he is referring. Remember also that the passions are the things we suffer. The term here does not refer to feeling strongly about something but to be ruled by those things that bypass our will. The eventual goal is to see reality, that is to know God, not through our imagination, but truly and actually.