Who Am I?

The Didache 7 – Ask It Not Back

Posted: June 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 7 – Ask It Not Back

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts).

Obviously, this is largely drawn from the Sermon on the Mount. Still, the balance of the repeated phrase, ask it not back, stands out to me. In the first instance, it is paired with take, in the second with give. In the first there is a sense of force against you and indeed helplessness on your part for you are not able. In the second you are in the position of power, with the ability to demand back that which you have given.

But it is the Father’s will that we give from our blessings to all.

Give.

All.

Those are tough words. I love some enough to give to them. I do not love all that much. And yet that’s the sort of love God has for us. All of us. The loved and the unloved and the hated are all loved by God. We who live and move and have our being in the overflow of that love have no excuse for doing less.


Mercy and Justice

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

More on the “Justice” of God

I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac the Syrian and others like him even before I had heard of Orthodoxy. It’s probably one of the things that always made me such a poor evangelical (and frankly, a poor Western Christian). But I was thirsty to know more about this God I had encountered and couldn’t shake. I read Scripture, but the more modern voices I encountered mostly did not match the things I saw in the Holy Scriptures or the God who had met me. The ancient authors I read more often did. I have not read Abba Ammonas before, but the short snippet makes me want to track down more by him.

I echo what Father Stephen says in his opening paragraph. I’ve often said that Western Christianity attributes a problem with forgiveness to God. The way he puts it might be better. Western Christianity speaks as though God’s justice constrains God. I’ve never understood how anyone could immerse themselves in the story of God and walk away with anything other than a picture of a God overflowing with mercy, forgiveness, and love. Even Jonah understood that much about God. It pissed him off royally. He didn’t like it one bit. But he understood God. It’s a struggle in the West to find voices that even seem to know God at all.

God doesn’t achieve justice by punishing the evildoer. He achieves justice by bringing good from the evil, by ultimately undoing the wrong, and, if at possible, by saving both the victim and the evildoer through his boundless mercy and love. St. Isaac could not imagine that any human being could become so hardened that they could resist the love of God forever. I am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. I fear that human beings can so distort themselves that they can trap themselves in a state unable to ever experience the light and love of God as anything but searing fire. But I hope St. Isaac is right.

In some ways I’m reminded of the scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? where Mrs. Prentice tells Matt Drayton this.

I believe that men grow old. And when the — when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all. Forget what true passion is. If you ever felt what my son feels for your daughter, you’ve forgotten everything about it.

My husband too.

You knew once, but that was a long time ago. Now the two of you don’t know.

And the strange thing, for your wife and me, is that you don’t even remember.

If you did how could you do what you are doing?

That’s what Western Christianity feels like to me these days. They knew about the love and mercy of God once upon a time. But now they don’t even remember. If they did, how could they do and say the things they do — about God and about other human beings? Eastern Christianity is like the wives. It remembers. It has never forgotten.

I strongly agree with Father Stephen’s closing statement in the first post. When somebody can show me where God’s mercy ends, I’ll be willing to consider where something else — anything else — begins. Until then, let’s talk about his mercy, pray for his mercy, live within his mercy, and live out his mercy to others.

If anything, Father Stephen’s followup post strikes even closer to home. Those who know me at all well know that I and those I love have experienced “injustice” — even evil. Ultimately, the cry for “justice”, where it is not merely a code word for revenge, is a deep cry from the depth of my being for the evil to have never happened. That is the only true justice.

But we desire justice only for others. For ourselves, if we are honest, we desire mercy. We not believe we will receive mercy, but it is what we desire. If God is willing to have mercy on us, how we can possibly believe his mercy toward anyone else is limited in any way? We are all hypocrites of the worst sort. We are the whitewashed tombs.

And yet God loves us.

That is the mystery at the center of reality.


The Didache 6 – Be Perfect

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect.

This line of the teaching haunts me. It echos Jesus in its call for us to live the way of love and by so doing to be perfect. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches (Matthew 5:43-48) that as we learn to love our enemies (and thus have no enemies) we will be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.

And again, a rich, young, devout man comes to Jesus (Matthew 19:16-22) seeking life. He has followed the way of Torah faithfully, yet recognizes that something is still lacking. Jesus’ answer begins with “If you want to be perfect …” Being perfect, then, is connected to receiving life and involves sacrificing to care for the poor as we follow Jesus.

James adds another layer (James 1:2-8) to the mix. If we’re going to be perfect, it seems we must have patience. And patience comes through trials and suffering. If our faith is never tested, it seems we would have difficulty becoming perfect. Some of the things we suffer, then, are for our salvation. I can look back on my life and see that pretty clearly at times.

There is a strain within Protestantism that holds that even if you never struggle to actively love your enemies, care for the poor, remain faithful through trials, or visibly ever change from the person you were into a person shaped and colored by Jesus of Nazareth, nevertheless you can somehow be “saved” if you give some sort of mental assent to some ideas about Jesus. It’s as though they believe the God who has freely allowed them to shape and form themselves into the person they desire to be will suddenly, after their death, magically change them into the person they should have been, but never tried or desired to be in life.

I have to confess, I don’t understand that perspective. I see a God who created us to be shaped and formed by the way of love, the way of life, the way of Jesus. But I also see a God who allows us to shape ourselves into whatever sort of creature we desire to be. And while I see much evidence that in our death and resurrection God will complete our transformation in ways we can hardly fathom or imagine in acts of new creation, I see no evidence that he will contravene our will and shape us into something other than what we desired to be in life. In the new creation we will become in truth and outward reality what we have desired to be in our heart.

For good or ill.


The Didache 4 – Have No Enemies

Posted: June 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 4 – Have No Enemies

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.

The way of Jesus, the way of life, is the way of love. We should not find that surprising for as St. John tells us, “God is love.” Nevertheless, we do not want to love every other human being we meet. We believe we ought to be able to pick and choose whom to love. Some people, after all, are not worthy of our love. Is that not so?

No, the way of life is about perceiving reality and acting accordingly. We are to love even those who actively hate us because we perceive their reality as a beloved eikon of God and as our brother or sister.

I see dimly how this is true. Jesus had no enemies. Those who plotted his betrayal and death were not his enemies, though I’m sure they saw themselves as such. They were his brothers. The Romans who crucified him were not his enemies. He forgave them their actions done in ignorance. Judas was not his enemy. Jesus loved him.

Each time I read this part of the Didache these days, I am reminded of two posts by Father Stephen Freeman about a monk in the Holy Land who has no enemies, On the Edge of Heaven and A Single Monk. I invite you to read his posts. Father Stephen expresses what I would say better than I possibly could.

In the face of the God of love and those human beings who truly love, I can only exclaim, “Lord have mercy!” If we love those who hate us, we can have no enemies. Instead, we too often choose to live in delusion surrounded if not by perceived enemies then by those we keep at arm’s length because they might be our enemy. In fear, we push them away rather than embracing them.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


Pentecost – The Healing of Babel

Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pentecost – The Healing of Babel

I keep finding in Orthodoxy not a new perspective, but rather a tradition that says things that have long been my perspective. Father Stephen’s post on Pentecost is but the latest example. This arc of the story had always seemed obvious to me. The narrative of “fall” ends with the tale of Babel and the dispersion of man into nations who stand against each other and who speak with different tongues. That’s immediately followed by God calling a man to form a people and the long story of the people of God culminating in the faithful man, the faithful Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth. In him, God then forms one people from the nations exemplified by the healing of the division of Babel at Pentecost.

In Father Stephen’s post I read that that has always been the way the Orthodox Church looked at it. Further, they extend it to the healing of creation.

Thus the trees.


The Art of Being Alone in a Crowd

Posted: June 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This weekend I helped chaperone an end-of-year 6th grade band outing to Schlitterbahn. We got everyone loaded onto the buses, to the park in one piece, set up in our central location, divided into their groups, went over the rules one more time, and then turned them loose. I hung around and chatted with some of the other adults for a while, applied my sunblock, and then went to ride some of the rides myself. I came back to eat my gluten-free lunch, chatted with the other adults some more, and took off again until it was nearing time to gather the kids in and head home. Over the course of the day, I would encounter and chat for a bit with adults or kids from our group, and then head back to whatever I was doing.

Somewhere during the course of the day, it dawned on me that I was perfectly comfortable alone in a vast crowd of people. It gave me time for my thoughts or for no thoughts if I desired to exist in the moment. I enjoyed the rides. I might find a moment when it seemed fitting to quietly pray the Jesus Prayer for a bit. But I slipped easily from interacting with others to not and back again. And as I reflected on that, I realized I could not recall a time in my life when that was not true. I’m not a loner, in that I don’t seek to separate myself from others. I enjoy being around people and doing things with them most of the time. But I have no stress if that doesn’t work out. I don’t often try very hard to make it happen.

Like many, I’ve read Putnam’s Bowling Alone and similar sociological works. I’ve recognized the truth in it on a lot of levels. I’ve come to accept that I’m shaped by a culture different from those older than me (and many roughly my age). And yet small things are still capable of surprising me. It’s true that our culture fits us like a second skin. We have an extremely hard time actually seeing our own cultural shaping rather than perceiving and sensing the world through it.

I think back on my life to when I was as young as sixth grade through eighth grade. I was always perfectly comfortable going to a movie, to the mall, to the skating rink, or Astroworld by myself. I was a bit of a flirt, so if I saw a girl or two at the skating rink, I might try to get to know them better. And I loved doing all of the above and more with friends or girls if the opportunity presented itself. But if not, I was always OK with that as well. I think of myself in my early twenties. I loved to hit various dance clubs with friends. But if I wanted to dance and nobody was available at the moment, I often went to my favorite clubs by myself and danced by myself in the middle of the crowd. It’s never bothered me to eat alone in public. Again, I don’t mind company. In fact, I enjoy company while eating. But it’s no sweat if I don’t have any. (Of course, as a celiac now, I have an entirely new set of issues with eating out, but they have nothing to do with being alone in a crowd.)

I look at that and I do see the ways in which it withers social capital. I do see how personal interconnections become lighter and easier to shed with all but a very few. I can see the things people decry and I can see them reflected in myself.

But how else do we live? Like many, I grew up without much in the way of extended family contact or other tribal connections. I guess we knew some neighbors. And there were some family friends. But people came into and left my sphere of interaction regularly. If I were culturally shaped in a way that required those connections, it seems to me that I could not have functioned at all. I grew up the only way I really could. I’ll confess there are problems with this, but I don’t see any easy solutions.

I do perhaps see hints of a way forward in Christianity, which holds the view that all human beings are connected and that only by deepening that connection can we truly be saved. I’ve heard it said that the most reclusive hermit among the desert fathers was still connected to and aware of all others. Rather than masters of being alone in a crowd, they were ever among a crowd even when they seemed utterly alone. However, I don’t know how to move from where I am to where they are. How do we shed our cultural skin without heading to the desert? It’s a question worth pondering.


The Shack

Posted: May 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Shack

Yes, I’m another Johnny-come-lately with this review of The Shack. In my defense, I only recently read the book and had not originally planned on reading it at all. My last attempt to delve into modern Christian fiction with the Left Behind genre ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth as that entire perspective formed little more than cotton candy in that deconstructive whirlwind I call a mind. I have been tempted to give Doystoyevsky another try now that I have a more Christian perspective, but that’s been the extent of my interest in Christian fiction these days. However, when a mostly Buddhist friend of ours bought the book for my wife and told her that the book helped her understand what Christians see in their God, I knew resistance was futile. 😉

From a literary perspective it was an easy read with a fairly gripping story and flow. Once you start reading it, you want to keep reading through to the conclusion. It’s a shame that the publishers gave the book a pass. I can see many areas where a good editor could have made significant contributions tightening the storyline and improving some of the places where the prose could be better. It’s not at all bad as written, but the editorial process could have tightened up its weak spots. There were a few instances where the prose made me wince, but others have already mentioned them. There’s no need to rehash them here. And there weren’t really that many of them.

From a theological perspective, The Shack necessarily suffers from the inherent limitation that any allegory, any description, any artistic work has when attempting to portray an ultimately transcendent God. With that said, I found the book did a surprisingly good job, much better than I expected. Many of the negative reviews I’ve seen focused on things like portraying the Father as a grandmotherly black woman for much of the book or the Holy Spirit as an asian woman also for much of the book. Honestly, there is nothing any more heretical or “wrong” about doing that than there is in portraying the Father as an old man with a long flowing white beard. They are anthropomorphisms, but we cannot actually think about God without anthropomorphizing him to some extent. As long as we are aware that that’s what we’re doing and that our effort is inherently limited and finite and thus flawed it’s really not a problem. God shows up to the protagonist as a woman because he has issues with the idea of “Father”. There’s nothing wrong with that idea. The bible is full of ways God is constantly accommodating our limitations and weaknesses.The fact that the manifestations are God accommodating the protagonist is made clear not only in the dialogue of the novel, but by the Father and the Spirit taking alternate forms over the course of the novel.

I most enjoyed the author’s effort to deconstruct the image of an angry God which has so dominated the West these past thousand years. He captured nicely the impassability of God’s love. God is love and we are his ‘very good’ creation. We have no language for that love. Everything we can say is necessarily inadequate. Nevertheless, the simple statement by ‘Poppa’ approaches the essential nature. “I am especially fond of you.” How true.

I also appreciated the manner in which the book captured the participation of the entire Trinity in the work of redemption on and through the Cross and the Resurrection. Too often in the West, the Trinity has been pictured at odds with each other during the Cross rather than acting in perfect unity.

I noted the attempt to portray the perichoretic nature of the Trinity. I know it’s extremely difficult to ever adequately portray the utterly self-sufficient, inter-penetrating, and mutually indwelling relational life of the Trinity. Nevertheless, I felt the attempt fell flat. I’m not sure, if you were unfamiliar with the underlying theology, that it would even be decipherable. That part gets an A for effort, but at best a C in execution.

The theodicy in the book was adequate. It was certainly better than you’ll get from some people, such as Piper, today. I could nitpick, but so many in our culture have heard such awful portrayals of God, they probably need the simplest window through which to begin to see the reality.

I was somewhat disappointed in the portrayal of Jesus. The book captured some of the implications for God of joining the human and divine natures. But I think the flip side of that equation got short shrift. It is through the Incarnation that human nature is healed. And it is through the union of the two natures of Jesus and only through that union that we are able to participate in the life of God. I don’t think the book did enough to bring that into the story. And without it, the story was less than it could have been.

I recognize that the lens through which this story was told was the lens of a particular individual. As such, it created an essentially individualistic framework. Nevertheless, it felt like the community of true human beings and our corporate effort was severely under-represented in the novel. That may be due as much to the way the story is embedded in our individualistic North American culture as to any intended or unintended statement by the author. Nevertheless, I wish more of the shared human nature and story had found its way into the story.

All in all, this is a novel that provides a better picture of God than much of what you’ll find in Western Christianity in a form that is accessible to everyone. Quibbles aside, there is much to be said for that. It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.


Changing the World, Teen Pregnancies, and Food Banks

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Changing the World, Teen Pregnancies, and Food Banks

I was reading Father Stephen’s post, To Change the World, and a number of different thoughts and emotions came to mind. I want to start with this quote:

But we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.

The example he uses to illustrate that point particularly struck home with me. When you’re a teen parent, especially one with few resources, you learn to swallow your pride. You learn to endure whatever you need to endure to obtain what you need for your family. But you do not remember those acts as acts of goodness or of love. When you do encounter actual goodness, real love, it sticks with you. Forever.

I remember when I was seventeen and working in Monroe, LA digging trenches and laying cablevision cable. We tried to share a house with a couple I worked with, but they decided it was too expensive and bailed to an apartment by the paper mills in West Monroe. (Gotta love the smell of paper mills in the morning!) We left that house as well since we couldn’t afford it by ourselves (leases don’t mean much when you have nothing) and took the first place we could find that we could afford, a tiny two room (yes, that’s two room, not two bedroom) house that had once been a parsonage, rented by the pastor and his wife of said church. (I have no memory whatsoever what church it might have been.) We did move in and water was included in the rent. So that was good. But we had zip left over to have the electricity turned on. You can manage without electricity and we had before, so we managed. When you have a baby, a roof and running water are the first things you worry about. Food for your child is second.

Perhaps a week to ten days later, the pastor’s wife stopped by while I was at work to see how things were going. When she discovered that we didn’t have electricity, she immediately took my first wife and daughter down to the electric company, wrote the check for the deposit, and made sure they turned on the electricity that same afternoon. It was quite a surprise for me when I finally got home after dark. (I tended to be out digging trenches until it was too dark to see many days.)

Those are the acts you remember. I doubt they remember us at all. We were in their lives for such a short period of time and we never really got to know each other. But that simple act of kindness and love has remained with me to this day. To be honest, if it weren’t for a trail of such acts through a period of my life where I had a pretty negative opinon about Christianity, I might not be Christian today. I do also remember the evil Christians did to me, but I was never able to say they were all like that. Because of people like that pastor’s wife, who would not take no for an answer. The kindness of strangers is nothing to sneer at.

While there are exceptions, when you act in an effort to control another person, even if “for their own good”, it’s not an act of love. God does not act that way toward us. He does not overpower us, though he may reveal himself to us. Even in that revelation, we have the freedom to say no. God does not manipulate us. Other than love, God does not have an agenda.

I wish that were more often true of Christians. Back when I attended and paid attention to the “business meetings” of our church (and that was years ago), I remember being somewhat repelled by the rules and forms and conditions our food pantry placed on our offering. Yes, I’m sure many people will go through whatever hurdles we set in order to get food. I’ve been in those shoes. I have not forgotten. Perhaps because I’ve been on the receiving end, I had a really hard time seeing the “caritas” in that approach. I’m sure that’s why I was so captivated by that portion of Sara Miles book, take this bread.

In his post, Father Stephen says this:

Is it good to help someone finish school? I think so.

Even that is bittersweet to me. Yes, I agree it is. But as I attended my Mom’s graduation last weekend (now both parents have doctorates and my brother has his Master’s degree), there were several things that caused me to pause and recognize that the last graduation I had was my graduation from 8th grade. I did get my GED. I have almost enough hours for my bachelor’s degree. But I’ve yet to actually have a graduation. I’ve been very fortunate. But still … I think it is good to help someone finish school.

Read Father Stephen’s post. And perhaps, instead of trying to change the world, simply try to actually do whatever good might cross your path on any given day.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

Posted: May 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

First, I think there is one sentence from the article, Beyond Justification, that highlights the proper place within our understanding for this discussion.

Theosis is not just the “goal” of salvation; it is salvation in its essence and fulfillment.

In other words, if we are not united with God, if we do not come to live and share and move – to dance – in the communal life of the triune God that I tried to outline in my earlier post, then in what sense have we been saved at all?

This is where the largely juridical categories most often used in the Christian West tend to break down. While the details will vary, most in the Christian West tie salvation to some legal declaration by God that one is not guilty. This declaration tends to be labeled justification and thus salvation is largely equated with being justified. Once salvation itself is linked to whether or not you have attained a certain legal or forensic status, the preeminent question becomes how one attains that status. Thus, the Western categories of thought about God’s work with humanity through Christ tend to be as follows (with salvation predominantly tied to the first category):

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

However, with only a few exceptions among primarily the early Latin Christian writers, this sort of perspective on salvation and these categories in particular did not come into being until the rise of Western scholasticism, marked most notably by Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. The Protestant Reformation (and later Radical Reformation) disputed the mechanics for achieving these categories but largely accepted the categories themselves. This is a central reason why the Orthodox will often comment that in their eyes Roman Catholicism and Protestantism seem more like two sides to the same coin. Justification, understood as a legal status, is associated with salvation itself. Sanctification is seen as a process of moral improvement over time, as the development of personal righteousness in reality, a progressive development in our condition. Glorification is then seen as the final state freed from the influence and presence of personal sin. The specific category names may vary, but that is generally the perspective today of the Christian West.

This perspective is not even vaguely similar to that of the Christian East. Justification is not much discussed at all and when it is, it is typically discussed in an existential rather than a juridical sense.

God’s initiative and action in the creation of humanity according to his image, and in the incarnation, Cross, and resurrection are of universal significance to humanity and cosmic significance to creation as a whole. Orthodoxy understands justification in Christ as restoring to all humanity the potential for immortality and communion with God lost in the Fall. This is because all human beings share the human nature of Jesus Christ, which was restored in the resurrection. … Salvation does not consist in an extrinsic “justification” – although this “legal” dimension is fully legitimate whenever one approaches salvation within the Old Testament category of the fulfillment of the law (as Paul does in Romans and Galatians) – but in a renewed communion with God, making human life fully human again.

Salvation is not the declaration of a legal change in our status. Rather, drawing deeply on John 14-17, the letters of John, Hebrews, and much of Paul that is underemphasized in the West (especially Ephesians and Colossians), salvation is seen as union with God. God desires us to join and participate in the perichoretic dance of the Trinity in total union with God and with each other. This is the telos of humanity. The Fathers of the church explicate this beautifully. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (Against Heresies):

So, then, since the Lord redeemed us by his own blood, and gave his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our bodies, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man—bringing God down to men by [the working of] the Spirit, and again raising man to God by his incarnation—and by his coming firmly and truly giving us incorruption, by our communion with God, all the teachings of the heretics are destroyed.

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? As the blessed Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. He does not say this about a [merely] spiritual and invisible man, for the spirit has neither bones nor flesh, but about [God’s] dispensation for the real man, [a dispensation] consisting of flesh and nerves and bones, which is nourished by his cup, which is his blood, and grows by the bread which is his body.

And, of course, we have the words of St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation):

Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man. The Savior’s own inspired disciples assure us of this. We read in one place: “For the love of Christ constraineth us, because we thus judge that, if One died on behalf of all, then all died, and He died for all that we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died and rose again from the dead, even our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again another says: “But we behold Him Who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He should taste of death on behalf of every man.”

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured. In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one’s eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one’s senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one’s thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped.

The Word, the eternal Son, assumed humanity that we might become God. Or, in the more commonly heard English translation of the statement. God became man that we might become God. This is salvation in the Eastern Christian mind. Yes, we are freed from the penalty of our sins. We are forgiven. But that is merely the starting point. That frees us to receive grace, that is to receive the life and energies of God, so that we can grow in communion with God and with each other. We are not saved until we fully participate in the life of the Trinity and in the life of every other true human being.

Salvation is thus utterly synergistic, but not in the merit-based sense that the term typically has in the West. Rather, since salvation is at its core relational in nature, it is synergistic by nature. A relationship, by definition, is two way. A monergistic relationship is an oxymoron. Our participation is empowered by God through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus, through the gift of the presence of God within us in the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the intertwined physical and spiritual mystical communion with God and with each other in many forms, but exemplified and rooted in the Eucharist. When you understand this, you understand why the Orthodox say things like, “The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.

But what a glorious vision of salvation this is! At it’s best in the Western sense, salvation still leaves us outside God, at most observing God. We are closer, of course. We can observe something of the dance of the Trinity. But we do not participate within it. We do not become one with God and with each other in the sense that Jesus taught. Sadly, as N.T. Wright has noted, the West has become so dualistic that often what is presented as the ultimate condition of salvation looks a whole lot more like Plato’s happy philosophers than anything recognizably Christian. We’ve reduced it to something small and ultimately boring. And that is truly sad, for the Christian story of what it means to be human and of our ultimate salvation is the best one you will ever find. I’ve explored many such stories and they pale in comparison.

In truth, as in my post on the Trinity in this series, my words here barely scratch the surface of this topic. It is just that deep and that rich. I’m at best an infant in my understanding. But hopefully I’ve exposed some of the beauty. I think there are a few more things I want to say in this series. We’ll see how many more posts that will entail.


Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

Posted: May 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 4 – Understanding the dance of the Trinity

I was struggling to frame my thoughts for the next post in this series when I realized I needed to pause for a moment and explore the Christian concept of the Trinity, that is of a triune God. I will say up front that anything and everything we can express about the essence and nature of God will always be in some sense inadequate. We are finite and God is not. This is, in fact, so true that as soon as we say something about God, we almost have to say that insofar as we’ve encountered or experienced or understood that thing, God is not like that to which are comparing him.

For instance, we can positively say, as the Holy Scriptures affirm, that God is love. But when we say that, we need to also say that the love I have or which I have experienced from others falls so short of the love that is God that in terms of the love I have known God is not love at all. God transcends my understanding of love. Nevertheless, even though it is limited and finite, my understanding and experience of love do help me begin to understand God.

If we do not maintain that tension in our thoughts, especially when discussing the Trinity, it becomes far to easy to attempt to rationalize the Trinity, to make the essence of God make sense to us. This has been true throughout Christian history. When people have fallen into this trap, they have tended to overemphasize either the oneness or the threeness of God. In so doing they have on the one hand reduced God to a single person who adopts different roles or masks. And on the other hand, they have subtly shifted to three persons who can somehow act separately, stand apart from one another, or even act in opposition to each other. Tritheism tends to be subtle rather than overt.

So it is with fear and trepidation that I venture into this arena of words, praying that I will not misspeak or be misunderstood. This discussion is risky, but it is essential. For if we do not have some understanding of the nature of the Trinity, it is not possible to understand what salvation means in the Christian sense of the word.

Before I delve into the heart of what I want to discuss, I did want to mention one principle I very recently picked up from Orthodox theology that I have found surprisingly helpful. My first reaction was “so what?”, but as I’ve reflected on it, I’ve found that it sounds simple, but runs very deep indeed. Here it is:

Everything that can be said about God is either unique to a single member of the Trinity or is common to all of the persons of the Trinity.

Here’s how it works. Most things are common to all. All are uncreated. All are love. All together fulfilled certain roles. All are creator (we see that in both Genesis and more explicitly in the NT). All are our redeemer. Redemption of creation was a wholly triune act. However, only one person is Father, one is Son, and one is Spirit. Only the Son is incarnate. Only the Son is begotten. Only the Spirit proceeds. Most importantly, no two persons of the Trinity ever share an attribute or quality or role or action that the third does not. Unique to one or common to all. Think about it. As it sinks in, I think the value of this dogma in keeping our way of thinking about God on track becomes clear.

The best metaphor for the Trinity I’ve yet encountered is that of the dance, a dance which lies at the center of reality. The greek word for this dance is perichoresis. The word is used to capture a reality of three persons who are so mutually indwelling, interpenetrating, and united that they can be said to share a single nature, a single essence, to be one with each other even as each retains their own unique personhood. This perichoretic nature is described as a dance, each person constantly twirling with, around, and through the other two. It’s a dance where, as soon as one person finds themselves in the center of the dance, they immediately yield that place to the other two. It’s a perfectly spinning, eternal, communal dance of self-sufficient love. It is perfect relationship in eternal motion.

This is the God made known to us through Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God inviting us to join the dance.