Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.

Peace.


Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Speaking of God – Trinity

Posted: April 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – Trinity

In Speaking Carefully About God and continuing in How to Speak of God I explored some of the things I try to keep in mind about God whenever I speak or write. In this final post, I want to explore what it means that the uniquely Christian God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. We cannot speak of the God made fully known in Jesus of Nazareth except in a fully Trinitarian manner.

But what does it mean to speak in a Trinitarian manner? How does one do that? There are many directions the answer to those questions could take. It’s a deep subject and there’s no way I can do more than address a very few aspects of the answer in this post. So this is not a comprehensive treatise, just a few things I try to keep in mind when I think of God.

First, there are three distinct Persons in the Trinity. That’s critically important. It’s not God presenting different faces to creation in different situations, but three Persons acting in concert. However, it’s three Persons so unified in love and will and action that they can said to be of one essence — one God. And that is the mystery. It’s out of the overflow from that deep and utterly self-sufficient uncreated communion of love that all creation subsists.

But that reality constrains our language. One way I have heard it presented that makes a great deal of sense to me goes something like this. Absolutely everything we can possibly say about God applies either to all three persons of the Trinity or uniquely to one — never to two and not the other. So the Father is uniquely Father. The Father is the font or source. The Son is the only begotten of the Father (begotten not made). The Son is the unique logos of God, the Debar Yahweh, the Word and strong right arm of God. The Holy Spirit, the  Ruach Yahweh, the breath or wind of God proceeds eternally from the Father. Those are some of the things we can say uniquely about each Person. These are some of the things that make them unique Persons.

But almost everything else we can possibly say about God applies to all three Persons. We say that God is love. By that we mean the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Spirit is love. And there is no break, division, or separation in their love. They are all the same love. One way to think of it is that the Father always acts in and through his Word and Spirit. And his Word and his Spirit never act apart from the Father and each other. Perfect union. Perfect harmony.

And this brings up a common problem today. In an attempt to find gender neutral references to the Persons of the Trinity, some people today try instead to reference the Persons by different activities of God. A commenter on Sarah Moon’s post, Our Mother who art in heaven, mentions referring to the Persons of the Godhead as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are other “activities as names” I’ve heard over the years, but the ones above are a good illustration and every such attempt shares the same flaw.

When we name the Persons of the Trinity by an activity of God, we necessarily ascribe that activity to that one Person and not to all three. The above implies that it’s the Father who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Spirit who sustains. A hermeneutical move like that effectively reduces the Trinity to three separate Gods (as some of the Christian critics have long asserted) acting independently from each other. And it also fails to accurately describe the God revealed to us.

The Father is not the Creator. No, it’s better to say that creation flows from the Father spoken by his Word and nurtured by his Spirit. We see that pretty clearly even in Genesis, but explicitly in places like the prologue to John and Colossians.

The Son is not separately the Redeemer. Rather the Son acts together with the Father and the Spirit as the agent of redemption — as one would expect of the Word or Arm of God. But it’s the Son acting in concert with the Father empowered by the Spirit redeeming creation. We could as easily say the Spirit redeems or the Father redeems.

Similarly, the Spirit alone is never the Sustainer. Colossians tells us that all creation subsists or is sustained each moment by the Son. Jesus tells us he is with us always, even to the end of the ages. The Father, as the font of life, also sustains all that is.

Virtually every action of God is an action of the Trinity, not of a single Person of the Trinity. It’s in that sense we have one God. So if we want to speak about the activity of God and we do not see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved in that activity, we should be exceedingly cautious indeed.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.


Love Wins

Posted: March 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments »

No, I haven’t read the Rob Bell book, so this isn’t a review. I may or may not read the book at some point. However, the rather strange controversy over the promotion of the book has brought to my mind many things I’ve read over the years. I decided to write a post in order to share a few of them.

Fear of torment is the way of a slave, desire of reward in the heavenly kingdom is the way of a hireling, but God’s way is that of a son, through love. — St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain

I heard a professor from a Christian university ask Rob Bell what it did to evangelism if Hell was not an actual place and, I suppose, a looming threat. I had several thoughts when I heard that question. The first, of course, is that the idea of Hell as place seems to owe more to the ancient pagan Greek concept of Hades than anything identifiably Jewish or Christian. I’ve explored Hell elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that here. But, Dante aside, it’s not the Christian understanding that there’s some place under the ground where the dead go.

But even more I thought of St. Nicodemos. Fear should never be the driving force in Christianity. Yes, it’s true that fear can be the beginning of wisdom, but perfect love drives out fear. If our evangelism attempts to instill fear or motivate through a promise of future reward, then whatever it is, it is not Christian. If we are driven to evangelize from fear, then I would have to question our motives as Christians. Actions taken either to instill fear or motivate through the promise of reward also look highly manipulative to me. And manipulation is many things, but it is most emphatically not love.

How then should we proclaim Christ to people? The words of St. Isaac the Syrian are, I think, good ones.

Conquer evil men by your gentle kindness, and make zealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind.  — St. Isaac of Syria

When we believe that we need to threaten people with hell in order to evangelize, we are capitulating to our own will to power. We are manipulating the other person in order to convert them to our way of thinking. We can tell ourselves it’s for their good, but that’s a lie. We are satisfying our own lust for power and control. When we act in these ways, we dehumanize our subject, treating them like an object to satisfy our own passions. Yes, we clothe it in noble terms. We dress it up in piety. But that’s all lipstick on a pig. God does not treat us that way.

Ultimately, of course, this train of thought rends the Christian understanding of God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth beyond all recognition. Instead of a good God of love, we end up with a capricious God who cannot forgive and requires payment for all debts. And if you do not hide behind the payment offered by the Son to the Father, then you will suffer forever. Our finite offenses reap infinite punishment. This God is not only capricious, he’s a torturer of the worst sort. No, that’s not the language used, but that’s how it deconstructs.

St. Isaac saw that clearly. This is not a new discussion. Modern Christianity has not discovered much that ancient Christians did not consider.

The man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men; and if it were not that, we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof. — St. Isaac of Syria

The above is exactly what so many modern Christians do when they describe God as just. The justice they have in mind is vengeance and retribution and the God they describe is an evil God.

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! — St. Isaac of Syria

Indeed. People want God to treat others justly according to their own personal sense of justice, whatever that might be. But the truth is that we cannot judge because we do not know and we do not love. But we cannot stop God’s love.

Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence. — St. John of Kronstadt

And, in turn, we are judged by our love.

Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. — Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud – he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard. — Elder Sampson of Russia

As Christians, we should be praying always for love to win.


The Jesus Prayer 7 – Seriousness of Disciplines

Posted: March 4th, 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.

Khouria Frederica points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.

This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.

It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.

I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the  best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.

With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.

Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.

The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.

I accept it humbly as a gift of God.

I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.

So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.

Peace.


Angels Among Us

Posted: February 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Do you believe in angels?

My wife’s question elicited an instant ‘yes‘ from me, but I also realized that in our modern world, we very rarely speak of angels. Oh, we’ll speak of their appearance in Scripture — in the past. We’ll sometimes have intellectual discussions about their nature and function. But even among the Christians I know, angels are rarely discussed as part of our present reality. I’m not sure why that’s so.

Angels, of course, are spiritual created beings while we are embodied created beings. As far as I can tell, that’s the core distinction between us. While angels are also free, as spiritual beings that freedom seems to have manifested differently for them than for us. It seems to have been more of a one time choice for or against God.

Angel is derived from the ancient Greek word, angelos, which means messenger. Throughout Christian history, God has sometimes sent a reposed saint as a messenger, but we do not become the spiritual beings known as angels nor do they become human beings. There seems to be some confusion today on that point.

My wife was quick to point out, though, that angels can manifest tangibly in the physical realm. And that’s quite true. Our guardian angels would not be very effective if that were not the case. My wife mentioned the stories of people who had been helped by a stranger only to have that person vanish in an instant.

“Of course,” I replied, “that happened to us all the time when I was growing up. My mother often needed all the help she could get.” I hadn’t really thought about it in years, but there’s a lot of truth in my quip. I had one of those interesting childhoods and my mother did have many struggles to overcome. We often ended up in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. My mother often jokes that she’s worn out her guardian angel. While it’s a joke, there is an element of truth in her statement. We frequently received help unexpectedly. And I have no doubt that some who helped us were indeed angels. They appeared from nowhere and vanished just as quickly and totally. And I’m sure that some of the invisible help we received also came from angels.

Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons why, out of all that I’ve been and believed and practiced over the course of my life, I’ve never been tempted by any form of materialism. I’ve encountered and experienced the spiritual too much to pretend it does not exist. I’ve also never believed the spiritual realm was far removed from us as even many Christians today seem to believe. I’ve always known it was all around me, hardly a breath away. In some ways, I suppose much of my life has been a thin place.

My wife also asked if angels comfort us when we are in pain. I had to confess I simply don’t know. That they love us I have no doubt. After all, they are filled with the very love of God. But comfort requires a level of empathy I’m not sure they share. Christ does, since he became fully one of us in every way. Jesus of Nazareth overflows with comfort and peace for us. I’m not sure if angels can understand and empathize enough with us to truly offer comfort, though. Love, however, is always a comfort of sorts, even if the one loving doesn’t really understand your pain. And I’m certain they love us.

If anyone reading has any thoughts on angels, I invite you to share them in the comments.


Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Hail Mary,
full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.  I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.


Thirsting for God 11 – Just Jesus and Me

Posted: January 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 11 – Just Jesus and Me

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

I intuitively grasp this section of Matthew’s book, but I find it hard to translate into words. Let’s start with some basic elements of our common human nature. We want to direct and control our lives and the world around us. The extent of the drive and the way in which it manifests vary hugely, but in one way or another it is common to us all. In pursuit of that goal, we often try to keep our options open and choose the path that appears most changeable, even though we’ve objectively proven that those paths and choices in reality simply produce more stress and tend to lead to undesirable outcomes. We actually function best (and tend to be happiest) when things are settled and when we know what to expect with some certainty. In our effort to shape the world around us, and in the ways we are influenced by those around us who are themselves doing the same thing, we develop particular interpretive grids. We believe that someone said something or that a particular idea can be found in a text, but it’s really our own thoughts read back into whatever we heard or read. We also lie to ourselves in a wide variety of ways. We minimize our actions while maximizing the actions of others. We project onto others. We deny a truth about ourselves that we cannot, for whatever reason, face. And in the process, we not only shape our interpretation of everything around us, we even shape and reinterpret our memories. We all do this. It’s so automatic it’s often like breathing to us. We aren’t even aware that it is happening.

Many of the “theological” thoughts I’ve posted here are ones I’ve long held. As I mentioned I turned to the early writings of the Church pretty early in my quest to understand this thing called Christianity and this God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. And those writings are permeated with many of the things I’ve shared. But five or ten years ago, I never would have expressed some of these ideas publicly because I was hard-pressed to find confirmation of them in any tradition of Christianity. I knew my own interpretations were as suspect as any other and though I thought my thoughts were confirmed in the writings of the ancient church, the truth is those cultures are as separated from me by language, time, and culture as the texts of Scripture.  I was as likely to misinterpret the Fathers as I was the Holy Scriptures. And I was just trying to understand this faith. I’ve never been the sort of person who, at least in these sorts of matters, wanted to convince people. And I was leery of even unintentionally leading people in the wrong direction.

That was the immediate source of relief and freedom I found when I first stumbled across and began exploring Orthodoxy.  A Christian tradition not only confirmed many of my thoughts and beliefs, but it could credibly trace that line of interpretation back to the very people in the ancient world I had been reading. That’s why I now feel free to share those thoughts publicly. I’m still not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone. Instead I write because it helps me work through things. I also can’t not write, whether I publish something or not. That’s always been true. So I’ve seen this blog as a good place to work through some things. If you’re reading and you disagree with something, that’s fine. I would ask that you consider why you disagree and from what source that disagreement arises. If your answer begins with either “That’s what the Bible says!” or (more honestly) “I believe that’s what the Bible says,” that’s fine. Just recognize, whether I express it or not, the question running through my head will be, “OK. Why do you believe that’s what it says?”

I say that to discuss the thought that lies at the core of this part of the book. By and large, Protestants want to determine how they worship God. It’s like trying to flip positions between the Creator and the Created. I don’t think most even realize how strange it is for the worshiper to tell the object of their worship how they are going to go about the act of worship. When you try to reduce the practice of your faith to your own preferences and make your own decisions about proper worship, when you try to make it just between you and God, it inevitably becomes just you. I’m deeply aware of the way that works. It’s a path of delusion.

Matthew tries to express that thought in a variety of ways.

You see, I at last understood that despite all the sincerity I had poured into my worship during the years I was a Protestant, God, out of His love for me, could not fully reveal Himself in the worship I offered him.

Why?

After all, God could not have been on the “throne of my life” when I was the one directing how He and I would relate to each other. When I picked the time, the place, and the method of worship, who was in charge — God or me? If God had accepted such worship, He would have been establishing me in my self-centeredness. That He would not do.

I don’t see any possible way for those in the Protestant tradition to ever be one with each other, much less one with God, as long as one of their central sacred tenets is that each individual person gets to choose how they want to worship God. But I also don’t see any way for Protestantism to ever be anything different. That’s pretty close to its core. If you look at the history of Protestantism, you see a steady and pretty much continuous progression along those lines. Protestantism today is very little like the Protestantism of five hundred or even two hundred years ago, but the continuous thread of the focus on individual interpretation and belief and even practice is pretty much continuous over these past few centuries.

Curiously, I heard a podcast recently that shed new light on that process for me. We’ve all heard the phrase, I’m sure, “outside the Church there is no salvation,” and the endless debates and discussions surrounding it. This podcast offered a perspective I had never considered, but which rings true to me, especially as it has bounced around my head a while. I’m not actually a huge fan of the Faith & Philosophy podcast, but I listen to it because it’s not long or overly frequent and there are sometimes gems like this podcast.


Ancient Texts 7 – New Testament

Posted: January 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament did not develop over a long period of time nor were the books in it primarily concerned with capturing oral tradition in writing. That’s why there isn’t a Christian version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy outlining in detail the forms of Christian worship. Those were left primarily as an oral tradition and though that tradition was, to one extent or another, captured in writing in the early centuries, those writings weren’t considered Scripture. The books of the New Testament were written by specific people over the relatively short span of a few decades and consist essentially of the surviving written teaching or tradition of the apostolic witness to Jesus of Nazareth.

The preeminent books have always been the Gospels throughout most of Christian history. They are accorded a special honor in liturgical worship and reading. They have often been bound together in one volume, separate from the other books. They are kissed. They are held high. They are processed. And Christians stand when the Gospels are read. At least, that describes most Christians over most of Christian history. Today that might or might not be the case. It’s a very mixed bag. I will note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were primarily viewed as the announcement of the good news of conquering king who has saved his people to those who were not necessarily yet Christians, though of course Christians read them as well. In the early days of the Church, John was considered to be more reserved for Christians.

Most of the other books are called letters and they were written by the Apostles mostly to deal with specific issues in Churches they could not visit at the time of the writing. The key exceptions are Romans, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse. Paul wrote Romans to try to address some issues and lay the groundwork before his first visit. It appears that he planned to use Rome as a base for a missionary journey through Spain and was concerned about divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city after the Jews had been allowed to return. Hebrews is a detailed theological treatise interpreting much of the Old Testament as types in light of Christ. The Apocalypse is, well, the Apocalypse. It’s in a category by itself and for that reason was one of the relatively few books in dispute as the canon was developed in the late fourth century CE.

The books called letters are mostly not letters in the ancient sense. They may or may not have the normal beginning and end that a letter had, but the body is little like ancient letters. Ancient letters tended to be brief and factual. (Remember these were oral cultures, not literate ones.) The “letters” of the New Testament are, in fact, mostly homilies and other forms of rhetorical speech that the person sending would have delivered in person had they been able to be present. The one carrying the “letter” had to know how to deliver the rhetoric as the apostle intended.

Of course, very little, if anything, in the New Testament was considered “scripture” when it was written. It was highly respected, of course, as capturing a part of the apostolic witness and tradition. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they received from him in word (orally in person) or by epistle. And the fact that they survived some intermittent but pretty severe periods of persecution shows the care with which they were copied and preserved. The awareness of those writings as scripture mostly developed over the course of the second century and early third century.

The first known list of the New Testament canon as we have it today was Athanasius’ list in the early fourth century, but that list was not accepted formally by the Church as the canon until late in the fourth century. I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to have some confusion about the canonization process today. It was a lengthy process. The canon didn’t just magically appear by the end of the first century, but it was also not a major source of debate. Other than some scattered heretics, the four gospels as we have them were always the gospels accepted by the Church. The so-called gnostic gospels that garner attention today were not suppressed (though they were rejected) and were never seriously considered for inclusion in the canon. Books that were seriously debated were books that did actually incorporate the true tradition of the church and which were highly respected. They were books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and what came to be called the ProtoEvangelion of James. Ultimately those books were not included in the canon because they were not believed to have been of apostolic origin. Although not Scripture, they were still valuable and recommended for reading — unlike the “gnostic gospels.”

All Christians do accept the same New Testament canon even if (like Luther) they don’t like parts of it. But that canon cannot be separated from the Church that decided it was indeed Scripture. And it seems to me that a lot of people today try to separate the two. Historically and rationally, that just doesn’t work — or at least I don’t see any way to make it work. I’ve read and listened to quite a few people on the topic, both academic and popular, who try to separate the NT canon from the Church that produced it. And their arguments seem to me to always end up chasing their own tail.