Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 7

Posted: August 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 7

14.  Evil is not to be imputed to the essence of created beings, but to their erroneous and mindless motivation.

This is an important point. There is a mystery to evil as the nature of creation is good. As such it can even be difficult to describe evil as a separate thing. Rather it is more the perversion of something. God did not create evil, but in the very freedom instilled in the essence of his creation, God created the space that allows evil to exist. Ironically, evil rules, dominates, and destroys us in ways that God never would. We truly suffer evil. And God suffers with us both as the lover of creation and, through Christ, by joining us within our suffering.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 4 – Theodicy

Posted: July 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Theodicy is a term generally used to describe the problem of reconciling a powerful and benevolent God with the suffering and pain in the world. It’s generally presented as an argument for atheism, so it may seem odd that I’m describing it as one of the reasons I’m not an atheist. Hopefully I can unravel that apparent conundrum.

I do want to be clear. Christianity does assert a single creator God on whom all that exists is contingent from moment to moment. Our God is one who is both immanent (everywhere present and filling all things) and transcendent. Christianity teaches that this God who is fully revealed in Christ is a good God who loves mankind. Moreover, this God is such that the only word, inadequate as it is, that we can use to capture his essence and being is love.

So it is true that the problem of evil is a very real one for Christianity. While I don’t intend to explore that problem in this post, I have discussed some of my thoughts in various places in the past. However I do acknowledge this is truly a deep philosophical problem — for Christianity. But atheism presents itself as the rejection of all Gods and any concept of deity, not merely a rejection of the Christian God. As such, I always wondered why its arguments, such as this one, seem to often be so narrowly focused.

I’ll illustrate by drawing on my pre-Christian Hindu perspective. Suffering is acknowledged, of course, but it cannot be described as a problem for Hinduism. Now, it’s been a long time since I actively thought from a somewhat Hindu perspective and I was never a particularly devoted practitioner by any stretch of the imagination. But that lens did generally shape how I perceived the world around me for much of my first three decades of life. And I did meditate, read the Bhagavad Gita (sporadically, at least) and other texts, and commentaries on them. I searched online and found one of the texts that still sticks in my mind from chapter 18. (Always keep in mind that it’s not easy to translate these texts into English. Concepts don’t necessarily match well at all.)

Within the hearts of all living entities, resides the Supreme Lord, O Arjuna and by the potency of the illusory energy orchestrates the movements of all living entities like figurines on a carousel.

This page actually includes four commentaries or different perspectives with Hinduism on that passage. The one by Sridhara Swami captures what would have been my understanding. It’s maya (often translated illusion, but flowing from the idea of “not that“) that binds us to samsara, the wheel of suffering within which we are locked by the cycle of death and rebirth. Through transcendence, we can stop revolving from one life to another. (Reincarnation and our attachment to the illusion of the material is actually more a core part of the problem in Hinduism than something desired. I guess that’s another reason I find it odd that a significant percentage of Christians today embrace reincarnation.)

Other religions have different perspectives, of course, but as far as I can tell, it would be hard to frame evil and suffering as a problem within their frameworks. (The exception is probably Judaism, though I don’t think the problem takes exactly the same shape that it does in Christianity.) And yet, as I’ve heard atheistic arguments over the years and as I’ve heard and read stories of people who embraced or converted to atheism rather than being raised within it, this problem of evil is often close to the core. I often don’t get the sense that people even see that it’s an anti-Christian argument and not one that actually supports atheism.

Finally, I find it strange that this particular argument is so common. After all, atheism itself offers a pretty poor ultimate response to pain and suffering. I don’t want to be flippant, but for all practical purposes, the modern atheistic answer seems to boil down to something pretty simple.

Life’s a bitch and then you die.

I’ll take Hinduism or Buddhism or Shintoism or any of a host of other answers over that one. I guess I’ll never be a good materialist. That lens has never held any appeal for me. Yes, it can be difficult to resolve a God of love with all the suffering and evil that exists. But I would rather make that effort, however deep the rabbit hole goes, than abandon it.

But let’s say I was willing to embrace the materialist perspective. If I did, I think Nietzsche carries it to its logical conclusion. And that will be the topic of my next post in this series.


Speaking Carefully About God

Posted: March 28th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking Carefully About God

Last week Sarah Moon published an interesting blog post, Our Mother who art in heaven… I read the post and its comments and, as such things tend to do with me, it started percolating in the back of my head. At one point, I started to comment on the post, but then realized the things I had to say would work better as blog posts than as comments.

I want to begin by noting that I agree with the central theme — or at least what I understood to be the central theme — of Sarah’s post. There are far too many strands within Christianity that attempt to turn God not just into an exclusively male figure, but into a very narrow vision of what it means to be male. While some strands, such as that loudly (and often angrily) proclaimed by Mark Driscoll, are openly misogynistic and hateful, many are more subtle, but nonetheless deadly.

When we assign gender to God in any way we must always recognize apophatically that as much as an aspect of our experience of God might be like a certain gender, at the same time it is also not like that at all. For God transcends everything we can possibly say about him, every metaphor we could use, and every analogy we could possibly draw. God is deeply and thoroughly personal, though, not impersonal, so I think it’s even worse to use a neuter pronoun (such as it) instead. But when we use gendered pronouns to refer to God, we must always hold them loosely.

I have noted in the past, as Sarah does in her post, that our Holy Scriptures are clear that mankind is created in God’s image, both male and female. And while yes, we must say that God cannot thus be defined as some sort of super-powerful man, I think sometimes people miss what it says about humanity. Our gender is an inextricable aspect of each of us, but it does not define our humanity or our nature.

Jesus, the God-man, became fully human, taking on all that we are in order to defeat death and evil on our behalf and bind our nature to the divine nature. And while Jesus became a human man, his work was universal in nature. It is a continuing act of cosmic new creation. In and through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah, mankind — male and female — is now not only in the image of God, but shares through the Resurrection the unending nature of God and is able to participate in the divine energies of God. Jesus did not merely rescue humanity; he took us where we otherwise had no ability to go. So we all have a common nature that goes beyond gender, otherwise as a male, Jesus’ humanity could have only freed and made new the nature of human males, not the universal human nature.

I also believe it’s important that in our struggles with certain almost or even overtly misogynistic strands that we not read that struggle into places where it didn’t or doesn’t exist.  I read another post last week, On letting Junia fly, that makes that point well. It’s true that some Western Protestants attempt to deny that St. Junia was a woman and an apostle. It’s true that they can try to construct systems that cage women.

But St. Junia was never and is not now caged as a result. St. Junia does not need to be released. She does not need us to let her fly. She flew. She worked tirelessly as an apostle and accomplished much for the one she knew and called Lord and for his Church. And she has been venerated as a saint for centuries as a result. St. Junia flew. Nevertheless, as with all the apostles, her flight called her to tireless service of others for her entire life rather than personal glory or power.

So we do need to speak carefully about God in every way. I’ll explore how to speak of God in my next post.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

Posted: March 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 24

54.  One should not be startled or astonished because God the Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son (cf. John 5:22). The Son teaches us, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged’ (Matt. 7:1); ‘Do not condemn, so that you may not be condemned’ (Luke 6:37). St Paul likewise says, ‘Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes’ (1 Cor. 4:5); and ‘By judging another you condemn yourself’ (Rom. 2:1). But men have given up weeping for their own sins and have taken judgment away from the Son. They themselves judge and condemn one another as if they were sinless. ‘Heaven was amazed at this’  (Jer. 2:12. LXX) and earth shuddered, but men in their obduracy are not ashamed.

This was not merely a problem in St. Maximos’ time; it continues to be a deep and enduring problem for Christians, especially today. And we treat it as though our condemnation of each other were a minor thing, when in fact we not only condemn ourselves, but heaven stands amazed and the earth shudders. It seems our condemnation of each other, rather than love, has cosmic ramifications, note merely personal ones.

Of course, we do have to speak for the good and expose evil and the way of death. But we must start by weeping for our sins and we must never judge ourselves better than another. In some sense, I think we must almost speak against evil in a way that confesses our own shared culpability in it. If we loved fully and more constantly, evil would hold less sway than it does.

However it might look if we did this well (and frankly it stretches my imagination), I’m certain we do it poorly today.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

Posted: March 15th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

53.  As the world of the body consists of things, so the world of the intellect consists of conceptual images. And as the body fornicates with the body of a woman, so the intellect, forming a picture of its own body, fornicates with the conceptual image of a woman. For in the mind it sees the form of its own body having intercourse with the form of a woman. Similarly, through the form of its own body, it mentally attacks the form of someone who has given it offense. The same is true with respect to other sins. For what the body acts out in the world of things, the intellect also acts out in the world of conceptual images.

This text further drives home the point of the last text. Our nous, intellect, or heart cannot be separated from our body. As one goes, so the other tends to follow. St. Maximos is actually refuting an aspect of pagan philosophy that held that spiritual is pure or good while the material is evil. Too many people today have brought that idea or similar ideas that our bodies and spirits are somehow discontinuous and have independent existence into modern Christianity. We are whole beings. We cannot do things with our bodies without affecting our spiritual selves and that toward which we attune ourselves spiritually manifests in our bodies. Over time, we become that which we truly worship. In that truth we see the reality of both salvation and damnation.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 16

Posted: February 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

29.  Just as evil is a privation of good, and ignorance a privation of knowledge, so non-being is a privation of being — not of being in a substantive sense, for that does not have any opposite, but of being that exists by participation in substantive being. The first two privations mentioned depend on the will of creatures; the third lies in the will of the Maker, who in His goodness wills beings always to exist and always to receive His blessings.

Our being exists by participation in God’s substantive being — the only true substantive being. As such it lies in his will and must always exist. However, good and knowledge depend on our will. As such, by denying them, we create the shadows of evil and ignorance.


Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 

Annunciation of the Theotokos

 

This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.

 


The Jesus Prayer 18 – Repentance

Posted: April 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

What’s the point of repentance? It’s important to understand the Christian (and older Hebrew) idea underlying it as a change in direction or a turning rather than a sense of sorrow. (I know it took me a while to figure that out given my background.) But even once you understand that fact, what is the ongoing process of repentance within Christian life meant to accomplish? And that’s tied to the idea of salvation.

Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, so we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and be healed at ever deeper levels. We spoke earlier about having a sense of urgency in our spiritual lives, and this is the root of that urgency. The lingering presence of sin damages our ability to see reality clearly. It darkens the nous. Sin also strengthens the power of the evil one, and helps him spread suffering and injustice in the world. No wonder we yearn for everything that is bent or damaged in us to be burned away by the radiance of Christ.

Another danger Khouria Frederica discusses is the state of acedia. It’s a state of despair when we decide to rid ourselves of one particular sin, but fail again and again, eventually giving up on salvation.

But the Lord may know something about the underlying structure of your sin that you don’t. It may be that some other debility, maybe something you’re not even aware of, is holding that big sin in place, and that has to be dealt with first. You might think that the Lord cannot stand the presence of your ugly sin, but he has been standing it a long time already, and he’s not going to stop loving you now. If he can be patient enough to bring about a healing that is permanent, you can too; all you have to do is let him love you.

And that’s why we must never abandon repentance. I read once of a monastic saying about the life of a monk: “We fall down and get back up. We fall down and get back up.” In many ways that describes us all.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 29

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 29

62.  If a person’s will is not directed towards what is good, it is inevitably directed towards evil; for it cannot be stationary with regard to both. Because it implies obduracy with regard to virtue Scripture describes the soul’s sluggishness in pursuing what is good as ‘stones’; while it describes as ‘timber’ the soul’s readiness to commit evil (cf. Zech. 5:4). But sense perception allied with the activity of the intellect produces virtue with spiritual knowledge.

I would tend to say that we are always becoming the person we will be. The person we are will soon be the person we were. We cannot stop that process and so we cannot remain static. It’s also true that the longer we remain on one course, fixed in one direction, the more difficult it is for us to change to another. Where is my will directed? It’s not an idle question. Rather, it’s often the image of the person I will be.


Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Khouria Frederica has been giving a number of lectures on the Jesus Prayer recently. I wanted to share this lecture at Oberlin College in particular. In this talk, she provides a shorter version of her own personal journey, she explains the concept of nous, and she describes how some of the Western ideas about God look from an Eastern Christian perspective, especially to those who have been raised within an Eastern context.

I particularly appreciated some of the things Khouria Frederica said about Western atonement theories. She jumps to the heart of the matter and identifies their central problem. The Western theories describe a God who cannot forgive, but who must, instead, be paid. At one point, she says it’s almost like eating in a restaurant and being told that your bill has been paid. The owner of the restaurant was still paid. He didn’t really forgive your debt; he was just paid by someone else. I have actually heard people use exactly that metaphor to describe Christ’s work. And long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy, I apparently reacted it to it in an essentially Orthodox manner. The Western view of the atonement turns the parable of the prodigal son on its head. Instead of the Father embracing his prodigal son in love and forgiveness, it’s as though he tells his younger son that his offense is unforgivable. However, his older brother has never done anything wrong and has obeyed his father, so if he killed him instead, the father could accept that death as payment and allow the younger son to return.

Khouria Frederica uses an example in English to illustrate the language of sacrifice and substitution in Scripture. If a soldier were killed in battle, we might say that he paid for our freedom with his life or a similarly phrased statement. If someone was not a native English speaker, he might ask who was paid? But, of course, that’s not what we mean at all. In the same way, the language of payment or substitution in the Holy Scriptures does not describe an act where the Son pays our debt to the Father (as if we needed to be rescued from God), but rather the act of rescuing us from the grip of the evil one who used the power of sin and death to keep us in bondage.

I also really enjoyed one of her statements about the work of prayer and other disciplines. “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” Yep. I’m confused when people act as though Christianity ought to be easy. How can anything as complex as the reality of our lives and relationships be easy? Orthodox Christianity does not try to hide the difficulty and struggle of our faith. Yes, God loves us. Unconditionally. Unending. Unchanging love. But most of the time, we don’t even really want God. At least, that’s true of me.