Who Am I?

Original Sin 10 – God Calls a People

Posted: March 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 10 – God Calls a People

It’s within the context of a humanity divided into many peoples with many gods, that we see God’s next move in Genesis 12. And unless you grasp the context of Babel, the dominion of death over humanity, and something of the depth and breadth of the healing and restoration we required, God’s moves looks exceedingly odd. Out of the nations of the earth, God calls a people. Think about it for a bit. Humanity is fractured. Not only have we turned from our only source of life, but we have turned from one another. We’ve abandoned communion with God and thus we also have no communion with each other. And every nation and even household is ruled by its own god or gods.

It’s in that context that God calls one man and tells that man that He will make him into a great nation. But there’s more there than promising him land and many descendants (essential components for a nation). God also promises that he will “be God to you and your descendants after you.” In our ears it sounds strange to hear God promising to be God. But in the ancient context where every nation had its gods, the promise makes sense. You can’t have a nation without gods. And for the nation God will form from Abraham, God promises he “will be their God.”

On the surface, it looks like God is doing little that is different from the surrounding landscape. He will have his people while the other gods have their peoples. But there is a difference that at first is easy to overlook. God promises right at the start that in Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God is creating a people certainly. But the purpose of that people is to bless all the nations. That theme steadily develops over the course of the narrative, though by the time of Jesus it is unclear how it will ever be fulfilled.

One thing, though, is clear. This is not the reductionist narrative I mentioned yesterday. From Genesis 12 on to the end, our Holy Scriptures form the story of the people of God. And it’s a complex and rich story that in the Old Testament speaks of Christ in shadow and in the New Testament is illuminated in and through Christ. It’s not the story of a people among many peoples, of a nation among many nations. No, it’s the story of a people that spreads through all the nations of the world like yeast in dough, incorporating them into one people of one God.

It’s hard to fit the idea of inherited guilt into that story of healing and the restoration of communion. It doesn’t fit anywhere in the natural flow of the narrative as we have it in scripture. Rather, it sticks out like something that has been jammed into it, but which forms a jarring note. Tomorrow we’ll look specifically at just a bit of the Old Testament narrative. There are a few things about God I want to draw out and emphasize.


Original Sin 8 – Job

Posted: March 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 8 – Job

In this post I want to turn to Job. It’s probably the oldest text in our Holy Scriptures and it has always been fascinating to me. I don’t think modern Christians spend enough time with this ancient poem or song (which is the form in which much oral tradition was preserved). For that is its literary form and it has always felt to me a lot like other ancient texts in this genre. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s one of the relatively few texts with which I immediately felt at home, as it were. (John’s gospel, by contrast, was at once almost comfortable on the one hand and deeply disturbing on the other.)

Sometimes people try to trot out Job in discussions of theodicy (the problem of evil). But that’s not really what Job is about. And that’s good, actually, because Job never actually gets the answer for why evil happens to righteous people and evil people often flourish. He does get the chance to ask God directly at the end, but he never does so. And God never answers that question. No, there are a lot of themes going on in Job, but that’s not one of them.

Obviously, I can’t explore all the themes in Job in a single post. And most of them don’t have much to do with the topic of this series. Still, I urge you to go back, read Job, and look for prefigurations of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus. They are very much present in this earliest of works. In fact, this is fundamentally a narrative of resurrection. I know we tend to leap to the Psalms and to Isaiah for such things. But take some time to suss them out in Job as well. It’s worth the time and effort.

In Job, we stand as the external observer. We know from the outset that the accuser has been allowed to test Job specifically because of his righteousness. And that’s a fact nobody in the narrative knows. Obviously, our knowledge of that fact is meant to condition the way we hear the story. One of the things I noticed right away is that Job’s friends raise many of the more sophisticated ancient explanations for suffering over the course of the story. Job sometimes replies that they do not apply to him and other times he rebuts them completely. It’s interesting, for example, that Job notes at length that evildoers often prosper.

Bildad approaches something like the concept of inherited guilt when he asks, “Or how may he who is born of a woman purify himself?” Of course, he is speaking more in ritual and ontological terms than in the strict legal sense of inherited guilt, but it is close enough that we should not overlook it. Job, in response, defends his righteousness — a defense which seems justified since God himself calls Job righteous.

God, of course, ends by expounding how far beyond the ken of man he is. And notably, God tells Job’s friends they were wrong. God never explains why Job suffered in particular or human suffering in general, but he does reject the ancient explanations. Like those ancient explanations, the notion of the inherited guilt of all mankind shares their same ‘pat’ nature. It’s simply too neat and too simple an answer, and therefore too small to be the truth.

God and reality are more complicated than that. Job, I think, teaches us to never lose sight of that truth. When we think we have the answer all wrapped up in a neat little package, we need to be especially wary. It’s a lesson most of us don’t want to learn — and I definitely include myself among those who tend to disregard it. God is larger than our minds can compass. We need to constantly remind ourselves that anything we think we know about God is at best incomplete. This is one of the reasons the center of Christian faith has always revolved around communion with God over knowledge of God.


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 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.


For the Life of the World 34

Posted: February 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 34

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Dn. Michael Hyatt’s podcast series does not continue into the appendices, but I’m going to continue to blog through the two essays in it. I’ve found them as compelling and fascinating as I have the rest of this book.

Fr. Schmemann begins by pointing out his belief that we don’t have a clear understanding in this day and age what either worship or secular age mean, and without addressing that confusion, the subject can’t really be discussed. It seems to me that we are at least as confused today as we were in 1971 when the paper was presented. Most likely, we are more confused now than ever. That’s why I found this paper, even though it is almost forty years old relevant today. Fr. Schmemann begins by considering secularism.

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: — not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Secularism is not the same thing as atheism, and it strikes me that a lot of Christians make that mistake today.  Secularism, however, is the negation of the sort of worship we particularly find in Christianity, the offering of creation back to God — a God who is everywhere present and filling all things — in thanksgiving. It’s also intriguing the way he defines secularism as a Christian heresy about man rather God. I had never thought of it that way, but it really does have a lot to do with how mankind fits in the schema of all that is.

To prove that my definition of secularism (“negation of worship”) is correct, I must prove two points. One concerning worship: it must be proven that the very notion of worship implies a certain idea of man’s relationship not only to God, but also to the world. And one concerning secularism: it must be proven that it is precisely this idea of worship that secularism explicitly or implicitly rejects.

When Fr. Schmemann considers the point above about worship, he primarily finds his evidence not from modern theologians, but from the scientific study of the history and phenomenology of religions that theologians have ignored as those theologians have focused on reducing sacraments to intellectual categories.

There can be no doubt however, that if, in the light this by now methodologically mature phenomenology of religion, we consider worship in general and the Christian leitourgia in particular, we are bound to admit that the very principle on which they are built, and which determined and shaped their development, is that of the sacramental character of the world and of man’s place in the world.

Christian worship depends on perceiving and interacting with the world as an “epiphany” of God and thus the world itself is “sacrament.”

And indeed, do I have to remind you of those realities, so humble, so “taken for granted” that they are hardly even mentioned in our highly sophisticated theological epistemologies and totally ignore in discussions about “hermeneutics,” and on which nevertheless simply depends our very existence as Church, as new creation, as people of God and temple of the Holy Spirit? We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him. … There is no worship without the participation of the body, without words and silence, light and darkness, movement and stillness — yet it is in and through worship that all these essential expressions of man in his relation to the world are given their ultimate “term” of reference, revealed in their highest and deepest meaning.

We need the matter of creation and we need our bodies to worship. Worship is not an inner matter. Worship is not something sacred and purely spiritual divorced from the secular, profane or ordinary matter of creation.

Being the epiphany of God, worship is thus the epiphany of the world; being communion with God, it is the only true communion with the world; being knowledge of God, it is the ultimate fulfillment of all human knowledge.


For the Life of the World 8

Posted: November 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 8

This post looks at section 13 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. Also, if you haven’t listened to it yet, here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast over sections 9-16.

I’ll dive right into Fr. Schmemann’s words since they are better than anything I can come up with.

Up to this point the Eucharist was our ascension in Christ, our entrance in Him into the “world to come.” And now, in this eucharistic offering in Christ of all things to the One to whom they belong and in whom alone they really exist, this movement of ascension has reached its end. We are at the paschal table of the Kingdom. What we have offered — our food, our life, ourselves, and the whole world — we offered in Christ and as Christ because He Himself has assumed our life and is our life. And now all this is given back to us as the gift of new life, and therefore — necessarily — as food.

“This is my body, this is my blood. Take, eat, drink ….”

There are questions that are typically asked: What actually happens? Nothing? Something? If something does actually happen, exactly when does it happen? If something happens, how can we explain it? If nothing happens, how can we invest it with meaning?

All of those questions (and more beside) are mostly an exercise in missing the point.

But throughout our study the main point has been that the whole liturgy is sacramental, that is, one transforming act and one ascending movement. And the very goal of this movement of ascension is to take us out of “this world” and to make us partakers of the world to come. In this world — the one that condemned Christ and by doing so has condemned itself — no bread, no wine can become the body and blood of Christ. Nothing which is a part of it can be “sacralized.” But the liturgy of the church is always an anaphora, a lifting up, an ascension. The Church fulfills itself in heaven in that new eon which Christ has inaugurated in His death, resurrection and ascension, and which was given to the Church on the day of Pentecost as its life, as the “end” toward which it moves. In this world Christ is crucified, His body broken, and His blood shed. And we must go out of this world, we must ascend to heaven in Christ in order to become partakers of the world to come.

But this is not an “other” world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us. It is our same world, redeemed and restored, in which Christ “fills all things with Himself.” And since God has created the world as food for us and has given us food as means of communion with Him, of life in Him, the new food of the new life which we receive from God in His Kingdom is Christ Himself. He is our bread — because from the very beginning all our hunger was a hunger for Him and all our bread was but a symbol of Him, a symbol that had to become reality.

Or in the words of Jesus:

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”

I’m not sure I can really add anything, so I’ll close with these words from section 13.

We offered the bread in remembrance of Christ because we know that Christ is Life, and all food, therefore, must lead us to Him. And now when we receive this bread from His hands, we know that he has taken up all life, filled it with Himself, made it what it was meant to be: communion with God, sacrament of His presence and love.

It seems to me that the common Baptist and evangelical understanding of the Eucharist has already surrendered to a secular understanding of reality. It is based on a perception that material things are somehow “ordinary” and nothing could be further from the truth.


Holy, Holy, Holy

Posted: October 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. Isaiah 6:3

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Trisagion

A couple of days ago, @tomcottar retweeted @edstetzer:

Holiness is not separation from sinners. It is separation from sin.

At the time I had several thoughts, but none that would fit in 140 characters, so I let it go. I saw it retweeted some more that day, so it stayed on my mind. Then yesterday, I was following up a reference in the OSB when I saw this note with Ephesians 1:4-6.

Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Christ into one’s life as getting oneself into Christ’s life.

As I reflected on that, I realized that I would need to capture my reaction to the initial tweet on holiness in writing and it would take me considerably more than 140 characters to do it.

I believe many people think of holy as roughly synonymous with good or pure or moral. And, at least in the sense that Christians use the word, that’s really not what it means. We draw our use and understanding from that of the ancient Jewish people and qadosh, to the extent that I understand it, draws more from the idea of being distinct, set apart, or separate. As an illustration, variants of the word refer to the male and female temple prostitutes that were common in the ancient pagan world. The ancient Hebrews certainly did not think of the practice as pure or moral, but did recognize that the temple prostitutes had been set apart for worship, even if pagan worship.

As an aside, that does also illustrate an interesting point. Monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, is not actually the belief of the ancient Jewish people. Rather, it’s a belief that developed over time and we probably don’t see it really in evidence until around the 2nd century BCE. For much of the Old Testament, the faith of the Israelites is better described as henotheism, or the worship of one God even as you accept the reality of other gods. God guided them through a long transition from polytheism to monotheism rooted in the commandment to worship only him. The story of the people of God makes a lot more sense if you read it with that understanding.

One of the tidbits I’ve picked up along the way about the ancient hebrew language is that it did not have comparatives and superlatives (as was not uncommon in ancient languages) in the same way that we modify words to express those concepts. Rather, it repeated the word being emphasized. Thus “holy, Holy, HOLY” as the angels are singing in Isaiah’s vision is a way of saying the most Holy or the most apart, distinct, separate, or different. God, in his essence, is entirely other from creation. He is the uncreated. And yet in the same song, we find the remarkable tension of our faith. God is entirely other from creation, and at the same time all creation is filled with his glory. God is immanent. This is the truth we see  fully realized in the Incarnation of our Lord. The God who is wholly other becomes fully one of us. The God who is other enters into and joins his creation in the most intimate way possible. Why? Because our God is a God who is love and love sacrifices for the other. Our God is good and the lover of mankind. He is not other and distant, but other and near. We pray in the Trisagion for the thrice holy God to have mercy on us. And the raw beauty of the Incarnation is that he does, in the only way possible.

And that, finally, brings me to my reaction to the tweet. The words from which “sin” is translated draw from a theme of “missing the mark“. Since our mark is God and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), it is true that as we draw toward our mark, we will move away from that which is not our mark. And the point of the tweet is an important one. As the people of the Christ (indeed, in so intimate a way that a description of the Church as body and as bride is natural in Scripture) who dined with tax collectors and sinners without regard for the laws regarding ritual cleanliness, as those who are already being healed, we must not draw away from those who need healing. We are the hospital.

As another aside, in the laws of ritual cleanliness by which, in part, the Jews were set apart as a people, it’s clear that one could be made ritually unclean by touch. Ritual cleanness or holiness, however, could not be similarly transmitted. That was utterly dependent on your own actions and required positive effort. Jesus, however, acted utterly differently. Not only did he act as though he could not be made unclean by contact, he acted as though those who came in contact with him could be made clean. Unless you understand that part of the context, you will miss part of the power of the Gospel narratives.

Back to the point, though I agree with the intent of the original tweet, I think there is a problem with the way it’s phrased. Whatever our intent, when we express an idea of “holiness” in the negative sense, as something that it is not, we put the focus and emphasis on that thing which it is not. So by describing holiness as separation from sin, we place the focus on sin. And when that happens, I can find no place in history or experience where our efforts do not collapse into moralism and legalism. We inevitably end up doing exactly what Ed Stetzer was tweeting against. We draw away from sinners.

I would suggest that we are better served by focusing on what holiness is rather than on what it is not. And, as Fr. Alexander Schmemman says in For the Life of the World: “Holy” is the real name of God. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We seek to live by growing in communion with God. We are on a journey to rejoin our life, toward union with the only source of life. Holiness lies in the journey of theosis.

Holy is God and holiness is our life in Christ.


For the Life of the World 5

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 5

Today I’ll blog through sections 7-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. But first, the link to Deacon Michale Hyatt’s  podcast if you haven’t already listened to it.

Bread and wine: to understand their initial and eternal meaning in the Eucharist we must forget for a time the endless controversies which little by little transformed them into “elements” of an almost abstract theological speculation.

O f course, in my SBC tradition, they aren’t actually bread and wine, but instead crackers and grape juice. And they have been reduced to an almost empty “symbol” with no intrinsic significance or meaning. Still, even in places that have not so reduced the Eucharist, the bread and the wine have become more abstract. I appreciate the emphasis. Let’s forget all that as we move into this section.

As we proceed further in the eucharistic liturgy, the time has come now to offer to God the totality of all our lives, of ourselves, of the world in which we live. This is the first meaning of our bringing to the altar the elements of our food. For we already know that food is life, that it is the very principle of life and that the whole world has been created as food for man. We also know that to offer this food, this world, this life to God is the initial “eucharistic” function of man, his very fulfillment as man. We know that we were created as celebrants of the sacrament of live, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God. We know that real life is “eucharist,” a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled. We know that we have lost this eucharistic life, and finally we know that in Christ, the new Adam, the perfect man, this eucharistic life was restored to man. For He Himself was the perfect Eucharist; He offered Himself in total obedience, love and thanksgiving to God. God was His very life. And He gave this perfect and eucharistic life to us. In Him God became our life.

This marks the point in the Divine Liturgy often called the great entrance, in which the gifts are brought out and processed through the people. It’s my understanding that in the ancient Church, the gifts were actually gathered from the people during the procession. We have moved into the Liturgy of the Faithful. Deacon Michael also notes an important point, I think. The gifts we bring are bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. That is, we do not simply return to God the raw food he has given us. Rather, through our efforts, we transform it into something more than it was and then offer it back. As I heard him say that, I was reminded of the parable of the talents and how the good and faithful servants multiplied what the master had entrusted to their care. Even here, at the core of our worship, we see some of that same dynamic at work.

Yes, to be sure, it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.

A love that costs you nothing, that requires no sacrifice, can hardly be called love at all. Amen.

He (Christ) has performed once and for all this Eucharist and nothing has been left unoffered. In him was Life — and this Life of all of us, He gave to God. The church is all those who have been accepted into the eucharistic life of Christ. … It is His Eucharist, and He is the Eucharist. As the prayer of offering says — “it is He who offers and it is He who is offered.” The liturgy has led us into the all-embracing Eucharist of Christ, and has revealed to us that the only Eucharist, the only offering of the world is Christ. We come again and again with our lives to offer; we bring and “sacrifice” — that is, give to God — what He has given us; and each time we come to the End of all sacrifices, of all offerings, of all eucharist, because each time it is revealed to us that Christ has offered all that exists, and that He and all that exists has been offered in His offering of Himself. We are included in the Eucharist of Christ and Christ is our Eucharist.

That is powerful. Read it several times and meditate on it. Remember one meaning of “Eucharist” — a giving of thanks — as you do. The procession is bearing the bread and wine to the altar. At this point in the liturgy, the faithful remember.

“May the Lord God remember in his Kingdom …” Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and His remembrance, His love is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings open to love, and we remember. The Church in its separation from “this world,” on its journey to heaven, remembers the world, remembers all men, remembers the whole of creation, takes it in love to God. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.

The Orthodox certainly remember, but they do not mean by that an empty, symbolic memorial to an event long past. No, this remembrance of love, this participation in Christ, restores life to the cosmos. I think I prefer their way of remembering.

The bread and wine are now on the altar, covered, hidden as our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). There lies, hidden in God, the totality of life, which Christ has brought back to God. And the celebrant says: “Let us love one another that in one accord we may confess …” There follows the kiss of peace, one of the fundamental acts of Christian liturgy.

It occurs to me that those who have never experienced any sort of Christian liturgy at all may not even be aware of the existence of the kiss of peace or its meaning. While often minimized today, it has always been a key part of Christian worship until recent times. The kiss is, of course, referenced in Scripture, but it strikes me as I read this section that I’ve never really heard any “non-liturgical” Protestant relate it to Christian worship in any way. That’s odd, actually, but I suppose it makes sense when you have excluded it from your worship.

The Church, if it is to be the Church, must be the revelation of that divine Love which God “poured out into our hearts.” Without this love nothing is “valid” in the Church because nothing is possible. The content of Christ’s Eucharist is Love, and only through love can we enter into it and be made its partakers. Of this love we are not capable. This love we have lost. This love Christ has given us and this gift is the Church. The Church constitutes itself through love and on love, and in this world it is to “witness” to Love, to re-present it, to make Love present. Love alone creates and transforms: it is, therefore, the very “principle” of the sacrament.

The discussion of the love of Christ that constitutes the Church reminds me of a Molly Sabourin podcast. It was the first time I had ever heard of Forgiveness Vespers, as practiced in the Orthodox Church at the onset of Lent each year. If the kiss of peace is the regular affirmation of love, Forgiveness Vespers provides the annual opportunity to clear away any lingering impediments to love as those in the Church ask for and offer forgiveness of everyone else, even those they do not know very well. I can think of little that I have heard within any path of spirituality in my highly varied journey that has ever struck me as so simply … beautiful. The first time I heard that podcast, it brought tears to my eyes. If we do not have love, we have nothing.


For the Life of the World 1

Posted: October 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 1

I’ve heard about For the Life of the World by Father Alexander Schmemann off and on for several years now. However, the convergence of several events have now led me to buy it and begin reading it myself. First, Deacon Michael Hyatt is teaching through it with his class each Sunday this fall, which is then distributed through his podcast, At the Intersection of East and West, a podcast I’ve followed since he started it. Second, I received a $10 Amazon gift certificate for participating in some survey. Third, I had to place an order for Catching Fire (the sequel to Hunger Games) for my daughter and, well, who can buy just one book at a time? 😉

So, this series will be interspersed within whatever other series I am doing more or less weekly as I intend to read through the book at the same pace as Deacon Hyatt’s class. I’ll write my posts on each chapter after reading the chapter and listening to the podcast. Today’s post is on the first chapter of the book, which describes its philosophical goals. The podcasts for this chapter spanned two weeks and I do recommend listening to them both. You’ll probably get more from Deacon Hyatt than you will from me anyway.

Fr. Schmemann opens his book by quoting the German materialist, Feuerbach, “Man is what he eats.” And he affirms that as a true statement, though not at all in the way that Feuerbach intended. Man is what he eats, but that does not reduce reality to the merely material. Rather, it points to the seamless unity of the physical and the spiritual.

In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.

Today many, especially in Western Christianity, have attempted to separate reality in the world of the religious life and the world of the profane, the ordinary, or the secular life. The problem is that such a dualism is neither Christian nor even particularly human. I must confess that I don’t understand this tendency among my fellow Protestants. I have always sought a path toward a unified reality. Now, that does not necessarily mean the fully embodied spirituality of Christianity. I was not uncomfortable with the fundamental Hindu perspective of the material reality as maya or illusion. The Christian fights or should fight to unify the totality of life, to have the fullness of life, but Fr. Schmemann asks an intriguing question:

What is the life of life itself?

Unless we answer that question properly, we will never move beyond the dichotomy that seems to haunt American Christianity. Whether trying to spiritualize our life or secularize our religion we are still approaching them as two different and separate things. They are not.

God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God.

Fr. Schmemann coins a descriptive for man. Whatever else we may be called ( e.g. homo sapiens, homo faber), we are first and foremost homo adorans.

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.

It is only as we understand that reality that story of the Fall can even begin to make sense. The story, of course, revolves around food. That is no accident. But more than that, it is not about choosing to obey or disobey some arbitrary rule. It cuts right to the heart of who and what we were created to be.

Not given, not blessed by God, it (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to return God’s love.

It is the ultimate expression of materialistic love, the love of the material in and for itself and for what it can provide me. We have done it so long and so consistently that it has come to seem normal. We don’t give thanks. We don’t bless the material creation for God. “It seems natural not to be eucharistic.” Indeed.

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. … For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. … For “the wages of sin is death.” The life man chose was only the appearance of life. … He ceased to be the priest of the world and became its slave.

That is, of course, the great irony. Our life is hid in Christ with God. Our life was to bless God and lift up his creation to him in thanksgiving. We have no life apart from God, so when we embrace that which is not God, we ultimately embrace death. In trying to control our world (and even ourselves) we become slaves to the world in and through our passions. I actually have a greater appreciation for Buddhism since I became Christian than I did before I was Christian. There is much truth to their teaching that our passions enslave us. There are worse things than to strive to become dispassionate, though the Christian approach is, ultimately, much different than the Buddhist path.

In our perspective, however, the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. … The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into “life in God,” filled with meaning and spirit.

The above is an extremely dense idea, but if you can begin to see it, you’ll begin to perceive the richness of creation and the depth of our distortion of it. This dualism, this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, is in and of itself the very substance of our fall. Every time we view the world through this lens, every time we act on these assumption, we participate in the fall and destruction of creation, even if what we actually do appears on the surface to be “good“. When we live and act within this dualism, we are deepening the shadow over our world. It’s into this darkness that God acted decisively: He sent light.

It is within the context of these thoughts that Fr. Schmemann makes a statement about Christianity not being a religion in the traditional sense of the word in a way that actually made sense to me. (I’ve heard similar statements in the past in a Protestant context, but I could never get them to add up.) I’ll draw a number of his phrases together here, but to really grasp what he’s saying, you probably need to read the entirety of the chapter.

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. … Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. … He (Christ) has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from “religion” in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. … And in Him (Christ) was the end of “religion,” because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion — was restored to man.

Within that context he discusses the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the discussion about temple that she had with Jesus. Jesus affirmed that the Jews at that time knew the truth and worshiped in the right location. But he told her that time was coming to an end. Christians and Christianity have never been tied to a particular place, to a particular time, to a particular building in our worship. We sacramentalize all of creation.

Now, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with building places, even beautiful places, with ornate liturgy, or with any of the rest of a fully embodied spirituality. There is not and never has been. Contrary to the beliefs of many of my fellow Baptists, Christianity has no history of congregational, non-liturgical worship until they created it from their own imaginations in the wake of what is called the Great Reformation. Their imagined first century church never existed historically in the manner many of them envision.

But as Christians, we are not tied to any one place, any one nation, any one ethnicity, or any one language in our worship. All creation is our temple as we offer it back to God in thanksgiving.


On the Incarnation of the Word 3 – Man in the Image of God

Posted: August 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 3 – Man in the Image of God

In the third section of his treatise, Athanasius emphasizes that God created everything through the Word and that he does not begrudge existence to any of it. That’s important to always keep in mind. Yes, God created and sustains everything from moment to moment. But that contingency is not a matter of concern. The uncreated God does not begrudge the existence of creation.

For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be niggardly of anything: whence, grudging existence to none, He has made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. And among these, having taken especial pity, above all things on earth, upon the race of men, and having perceived its inability, by virtue of the condition of its origin, to continue in one stay, He gave them a further gift, and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.

Mankind was alone created in the image or as the eikon of the uncreated God. Mankind is not an afterthought, not an accident, not unwanted. Man is created to proclaim God into creation. It’s a different sort of story of creation and man’s place within it.

Athanasius wraps up this section with an important point. Man was not created in a state of absolute perfection from which we fell and to which we are being restored. Rather, man was created immature, with the potential to choose God and life and grow in communion with God and the potential to turn from God instead; to seek non-existence and find the corruption of death.

There is no going back to the garden. Instead we’re moving forward to something new.