Who Am I?

Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 6

Posted: September 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 6

12.  Providence has implanted a divine standard or law in created beings, and in accordance with this law when we are ungrateful for spiritual blessings we are schooled in gratitude by adversity, and brought to recognize through this experience that all such blessings are produced through the workings of divine power. This is to prevent us from becoming irrepressibly conceited, and from thinking in our arrogance that we possess virtue and spiritual knowledge by nature and not by grace. If we did this we would be using what is good to produce what is evil: the very things which should establish knowledge of God unshaken within us will instead be making us ignorant of Him.

Such arrogance is an easy trap for any of us. We have all seen people fall into it and, I think, if we try to be honest with ourselves, I think most of us have at least begun to fall into it at one point or another. Paul writes about this, of course, as the sort of knowledge which puffs up. All our virtue and knowledge and true power lies in Christ and our communion with him.

Paul describes Adam as the man of dust. He also calls Christ the image of the invisible God. We are created according to the likeness of the one true image or eikon, but that is not our nature. Our nature outside Christ is dust. In the Incarnation and Resurrection, Christ has made himself the source of the nature of humanity. It’s a wondrous teaching, but sometimes it can be easy to forget that it all flows from him. Without him, we have no life.


Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 4:16-30; 6:20-26.

Scot McKnight stakes out his ground right away in this chapter.

By virtue of entering the kingdom of God, we Christians make the astounding claim that we live under a different order — God’s order. Living in that order should make a difference in our day-to-day living and in our society. After all, the kingdom Jesus describes is a society and not just a personal nest.

Why else do we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? If our faith has any meaning, then we are the enclave or manifestation of God’s kingdom here on earth. I think we need to do that for each other more often. It’s not all about the pleasant, the comfortable, the easy, or the personal. It’s about a whole lot more. Either we choose to live as citizens of the Kingdom or we do not. And we tend to waver between those poles. Sometimes we desire to so live. More often we do not. And that seems to be where our communion should enter the picture. Faith in isolation and without physical expression tends to fade. At least that’s my experience. I know the monastic hermits in their seclusion prayed for and were mystically connected with the whole world, but that’s a special calling, not something normative. Even the monastics mostly live in community. It’s not just that it’s helpful to have a ‘church family‘ (too bad we don’t really take that phrase seriously), there’s no other way for us to live. Sure, they’ll disappoint us, abandon us, hurt us, and all the rest. (Doesn’t your blood family do the same?) And yet, they and the Eucharist are God offered to our senses.  Where else can we turn?

Spiritual formation is not all contemplation and meditation, or Bible study groups and church gatherings. Spiritual formation, because it begins with the Jesus Creed, involves loving God and others. We need not choose one or the other; we need both, because loving others includes brushing up against the thorns of injustice in society. Love wants them removed.

Make no mistake. I love my country. I believe it is (on its good days) among the best the kingdoms of this world have ever offered. But it remains a kingdom of this world. We forget this reality to our peril. The Church is the one who must challenge the powers of this earth. Doesn’t Paul write about that?

Because the term ‘justice’ is used like this [in a retributive or vengeful manner] so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.

In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes ‘making something right,’ and for something to be ‘right,’ there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was ‘to make things right’ according to Scripture. In our American society what makes something ‘right’ is if it conforms to the United States Constitution or to a decision made in a court of law. Jesus operates in the Jewish world. What makes things ‘right’ for him? What is his standard? Here is where a Christian sense of justice parts company with standard social understandings.

The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is ‘right’ is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others. The vision of restorative justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of justice. The follower of Jesus is to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice)’, but that ‘justice’ is defined by the Jesus Creed, not the Constitution. To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love others and work for a system that expresses such love.

That’s a long quote, but I think this discussion required all of it. Now go read the parable of judgment day (sheep and goats) in Matthew. Think about it for a while. What distinguishes one who follows Jesus? Is it not ultimately a judgment of love? I think too many Christians confuse it as a judgment of ‘works‘ using a pretty anachronistic definition of the term. In a sense it is, but those works are works of love.

Not all of us are called to work in the justice system [of our society or kingdom of this world], but we are empowered to restore justice in our society. One person at a time; one change at a time; wherever we can.

That’s the closing thought of the chapter. And it’s a very fitting one.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 3

Posted: September 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

7.  Scripture exhorts us to offer gifts to God so that we may become conscious of His infinite goodness. For God receives our offerings as if they were entirely our own gifts and He had not already given us anything. In this way God’s untold goodness towards us is fully evident, for when we offer Him things which in reality are His own He accepts them as if they were ours, and He makes Himself our debtor as though they were not already His.

I don’t believe we usually grasp this reality. I know I struggle with it. It feels as though when I give, I am giving that which is mine. But I think back to when my children were small and they would offer me gifts. I always received them with joy and treated them as though my children had offered my something from their own resources. In truth, at such young ages, they really had nothing much apart from the resources we provided.

The same is true with God, even when we don’t acknowledge it. But he is our loving Father, and that matters not at all to him. It is our love we reveal (or sadly our lack of love) in our gifts. And that is what truly matters. It is communion God seeks with us and that can only be found through love.


Jesus Creed 13 – A Society of Transformation

Posted: September 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 13 – A Society of Transformation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 6:10, 11:28-30; Luke 17:20-21; Mark 3:31-35.

This section begins with the point that your goal shapes your journey. You have to know where you are going or you can get lost.  Jesus, too, knew where he was going, and he had a term for it — ‘kingdom of heaven’ (malekutha shamayim). This expression of Jesus provides a goal for his followers and, by living out that vision in heart, soul, mind, and strength, life is transformed.

Thus we should be a society of transformation. Are we, though? Scot has this interesting bit.

But what does he mean by ‘kingdom’? Ask a Christian ‘What did Jesus mean by ‘kingdom’?’ and you will get something like this: ‘heaven, eternity, life after death.’ Or, you might hear: ‘heaven on earth, the millenium, a perfect world, a paradise.’ (On my unscientific questionnaire, the responses are about fifty-fifty.)

His ‘unscientific’ poll strikes me as exactly right. That does seem to be how most people view the term. Scot has a lot in the book developing his thoughts, but the below captures part of his conclusion.

So, if ‘kingdom of God’ is so important to Jesus, what does it mean? I offer this thumbnail definition: the kingdom is the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life. Three parts here: first, it is a society; second, the content shaping that society is the Jesus Creed; and third, the impact of the kingdom is that it transforms life.

A society is certainly one term, an entry point if you will, into the reality we call the church, but I don’t believe it captures its fullness. The church does break down all human divisions — it heals Babel. But I would call it less a society than a restoration of communion between human beings. I will say that where a larger society or culture shaped by the Jesus Creed exists, it transforms both those within and those who come in contact with it. If the society, whether labeled ‘Christian’ or not, is not shaped by the Jesus Creed its impact is negligible or even harmful. We have plenty of examples of both of those from history.

I will note that in my own journey toward Christianity, I was neither uncomfortable with what I believed (I wasn’t seeking something different), nor did I have an unsettled opinion of Christianity and Christians in general. Rather, it was the actions — the love — I saw and experienced from various Christians over time that led me initially to wonder if my judgment of Christianity had been premature and unfair.

Scot continues with this important insight.

It is important to understand that for Jesus the kingdom is about a society. Jesus did not come merely to enable specific individuals to develop a solo relationship with God, to run about on earth knowing that they, surrounded by a bunch of bunglers, were the only ones getting it right. No, he came to collect individuals into a big heap, set them in the middle of the world, and ask them to live out the Jesus Creed. If they live out that Jesus Creed, they will be personally transformed, and they also will transform the society around them.

Think about that. If it were all about individuals and God, there would have been no reason to amend the Shema, would there? It already covered that, didn’t it? Are we proclaiming and living the kingdom? Or are we returning to something like the focus of Israel under the Shema? That’s something to think about. I will, however, note that Jesus’ own language goes well beyond that of societal relationship. His language is that we be one with each other as he and the Father are one. That’s why I think a communion is a better word for the Kingdom than a society. But the point remains — this is not a faith for individuals. It’s not just about God and you.

The kingdom would be a society that is transforming life in the now, and that’s the extraordinary thing about Jesus. At the time of Jesus, it was not hard to find Jews pining for, pondering over, or planning for the kingdom. It was impossible to find one who believed that the long-anticipated kingdom was already present. Of all the radical claims Jesus made, this one stands the tallest: ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly … because the kingdom of God is [right now and here] among you’ (author’s translation). Jesus’ saying- satchel is full of radical comments, but this tops ’em all. Jesus believes the kingdom of God is present. This can mean only one thing: he expects his followers to live in the kingdom in their daily lives — right now. Thus, a spiritually formed follower of Jesus lives the values of the kingdom now.

Do you agree? Or disagree? This is a central question, not a peripheral one. How you answer determines how you perceive the faith, Jesus, and everything surrounding it. Obviously, I see it much as Scot McKnight does. I get the sense that much of the church today does not. He does point out that Jesus says the kingdom begins by turning to him. So it is personal and relational. It begins by turning to him. But it doesn’t end there. “Kingdom transformation continues by following Jesus.” Scot has a lot more to say, but that captures it. Turning to Jesus is the start, but if you refuse to follow him, it doesn’t mean all that much. He talks a lot here about Jesus’ yoke as compared to the Torah-yoke and that’s a really good part of the chapter.

But it doesn’t even end there. The Kingdom transformation is only sustained by communion. Those fellow believers are the holiest objects presented to your senses. As flawed as they are, as often as they will fail you, they are the only thing that will sustain you in the faith. If you do not spend time with them, you’re in trouble. Pure and simple.

As a family they learn from Jesus about this new transforming: about boundary-breaking table fellowship, about forgiving one another, about financial responsibility for one another, and about equality within the family of God. What they learn most is the upside-down nature of the kingdom istself: instead of acting with power, his family serves one another. And, instead of living in self-absorption, his followers love one another. In other words, they live out the Jesus Creed as a society –and when they do, life is transformed.

Do we do that? Really?

The kingdom is the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life.

In other words, that place where God’s will is done as it is heaven, even imperfectly.

Nothing else transforms life.


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.


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.


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.


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.