Who Am I?

Are You Saved?

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I listened to the following from Molly Sabourin in one of her podcasts quite a while back. Somebody uploaded it to youtube with visuals. It’s timeless and beautiful.

Molly’s words require no elaboration from me. They are haunting and beautiful and stand easily on their own. Still, I have sought for words to express how I reacted when I first heard this in her podcast. There was a profound sense of affirmation and proper orientation. My heart sighed, “Yes!” as tension I had carried for so long melted away. I’ve had many interactions with Christians and experiences with Christianity, both positive and negative, throughout my life. All of those were “legitimate” in the sense that they all infomed the first thirty years of my process of conversion. I don’t discount one in favor of another. The events and decisions that led to my Baptism at age six or seven were not somehow false or invalid because my identity did not begin to truly become intertwined with Jesus of Nazareth until my early thirties when I generally consider the process of my journey to have reached the point where the language of conversion is the only language that fits.

However, as many Americans who wind their way into or within Christianity often do, I reached that point in my journey in a tradition which attempts to reduce the broad, rich, and varied use of the concept of “salvation” within Christianity to a single event at one specific point in time. They want to use the metaphor of a wedding rather than the biblical metaphor of a marriage. They want to make salvation about an intellectual decision that you make fervently and sincerely enough for it to stick in that instant. And as far as I’ve been able to discern, “salvation” is reduced to an answer to the question, “What happens when I die?”

That was never a particular concern of mine. To the extent that I considered it at all, I was perfectly satisfied with my childhood and adult belief in the transmigration of souls blended with a later developing belief that some might remain pure spirit as a form of kami. I wasn’t worried about the caricature of “hell” you encounter in American culture in general and more seriously in evangelicalism because I didn’t believe in it. (I still don’t believe in either the funny cultural parody or the more serious evangelical caricature of hell which the culture rightly parodies. But that’s a discussion for another day. I do believe in the power of death (hades) which Christ has defeated. And I do believe in the reality of the experience described by the metaphor of gehenna that flows from the eschaton of the narrative of the Christian story. Pick which you mean by the English word drawn from the name and realm of the goddess Hel.)

As N.T. Wright and others have pointed out in detail, the Holy Scriptures also say fairly little about what happens in the interim period between the time our bodies sleep and the resurrection of the dead. There are just a few words here and there. Instead of the deep and multi-faceted concepts of salvation found in our Holy Scriptures, much of evangelicalism has reduced salvation to a single facet that does not ever seem to be the primary focus of the New Testament. And in so doing they have crafted a framework in which my own personal story simply won’t fit.

Molly captures in her words so much of the way the story and person of Jesus of Nazareth had reshaped and reformed my own personal story and identity in something more like the full richness of the scriptural usage of the concepts of salvation. In one sense, all humanity was saved when Jesus united the human and divine natures fully, in their entirety, and lived the life of a faithful human being; was crucified by the powers as our ransom; and broke the power of death over humanity in his Resurrection. Because of Jesus, it is no longer the nature of man to die. In Christ we find our salvation.

In another sense, I am working out my salvation today in this life with fear and trembling. I see as though through a mirror, darkly. But as best as I am able I am pressing forward, running the race, and trying to learn to obey the commands of Jesus as I try to follow him. In this sense, I can hardly say I was saved at some earlier point in my life. I’m still alive. While it seems incredible to me at this moment that I would ever do anything but follow Christ, it was once just as incredible to me that I would. If over the course of my life I turned to a different spiritual path and followed other gods, in what sense would I be “saved” in the particular Christian sense? I continue to be in the process of being saved. As with marriage, this is a process and a life. We follow a personal God of perfect relationship. How could it be anything else?

And finally, in another broad scriptural sense, I will one day stand before God with my true self fully revealed in his light to myself and all others. There is no account of that final judgment in the Holy Scriptures that does not describe it as a judgment over the totality of our lives — over who we are with no lies and no deception. God is love and light, but so pure that no shadow of darkness can persist in his unveiled presence. The question will not ultimately be about what God thinks of me. The ultimate answer to that question was the Cross. God loves me. The question will be, “Do I love God?” I pray that I grow in the grace and love of God so that through Jesus my answer is, “Yes!” For this reason I pray, “Lord have mercy.” But a lasting life in a resurrected body continuous, yet discontinuous, with my present body and in some sense like our Lord’s in his Resurrection working within a restored and healed creation that has been made new and is overflowing with the unveiled glory of the Lord marks the fullness of the Christian story of salvation.

That is our hope. Nothing less.


The Didache 13 – The Faces of the Saints

Posted: June 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 13 – The Faces of the Saints

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

My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord. For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words.

This section begins with an exhortation to always remember and honor the one “who speaks the word of God to you.” It’s an interesting phrase and none of the other translations make it clear. The “my child” reminds me of John. And thinking of him leads me to think that it does mean the shepherd, the episcopos, the bishop.

The next sentence is confusing, but after reading several translations, N.T. Wright came to mind. Whereever it is proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord,” he is particularly present. Of course, Jesus is Lord everywhere and over every power whether or not his lordship is proclaimed. Nevertheless, there is a particular and mysterious power in the proclamation itself. Further, connected as this is with the first sentence and the one following, there is a particular connection between the proclamation, the proclaiming community, and the bishop who shepherds the community in that particular geographical location.

In addition to its obvious meaning of those who live in the same place and time as you and with whom you should be closely bound, the last sentence above led me to think of icons. Those are representations, mystical connections if you will, to those whose bodies sleep, but who we still believe are with us, surrounding us, and involved in the life of the church. As Christians, we do not believe that death has any power over us. We know that the history of iconography stretches back at least to the second century. And it seems likely that is goes all the way back into the first. In fact, you don’t find any major influence or presence of iconoclasm in the church until Islam began to influence it. At any rate, it was a picture that came to my mind as I reflected on that sentence and the way it connected to the other two. The Teaching is often dense and says much with few words.


The Didache 8 – Examined

Posted: June 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 8 – Examined

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

Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny.

As N.T. Wright has noted there is not a single place in the Holy Scriptures where the future judgment is mentioned as examining anything other than the totality of our lives. How could it be otherwise? How often do I receive when I have no need? And how often do I fail to give as the commandment of Jesus provides?

We are a nation of such wealth as could not have even been imagined in the ancient world. I’ve noticed that we do not care to dwell overmuch on the things Jesus says to the rich. I do understand that. I find his words to us disturbing as well. But at some point we will all have to give an account. We will be examined concerning all we have done and all which we have not done.

I pray I have truly desired to do better than I have actually done.


Thoughts on Emergent

Posted: June 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve read Julie Clawson’s post, Disappointed with Emergent?, and followed the replies with a fair degree of interest. I’ve thought about what I might say in a comment and it’s never really seemed to fit the focus and flow of the discussion or be something I could say succinctly. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided to write my own post at a tangent to her post and the rest of the broader discussion on the topic. I’m not involved with Emergent in any way, unlike many of the others who have posted. So my thoughts will be from a somewhat different perspective.

I became aware of Emergent probably about five years ago or so. It impinged on my consciousness not through a book, a search, particular sorts of questions, or anything like that. Rather, I was introduced to this particular conversation by a friend.  That friend had grown up, I gather, within the more or less typical southern evangelical conservative culture. There are the sorts of ups and downs we tend to expect in those stories, but it does include some ways of treating fellow human beings as a young man, flowing in some ways from that particular culture, that do still weigh on his conscience. Personally, while I can listen and accept that he is telling stories from his personal history, I cannot connect that person to the man I have come to know. I suppose that’s not surprising, really. Though I see myself as continuous with the person I was twenty years ago and more, I do know that so much about me has shifted so much that in some ways I’m hardly the same person at all. To one degree or another, that’s probably true of most of us. From what I understand, Emergent and related conversations had done a great deal to remold and perhaps even preserve the faith of my friend. I don’t want to speak too strongly, but I think he encountered it at a time where trying to continue to do what he had always done was no longer really possible.

We had come to know each other well enough that he knew my background and knew it was about as far from the story of the evangelical suburban childhood as you can get within our shared American context. While the forces of modernity that shaped and formed the Reformation still largely shape both the liberal and conservative branches of Protestantism, I was molded and formed culturally, spiritually, and practically within the postmodern whirlwind. I’ve been a Christian for about a decade and a half within the context of an SBC church. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are great people. I love many of them. But I’ll never think, approach life, approach God, or practice the spiritual dimension of my life as many of them do. I’ve tried on a lot of it to see what would stick and relatively little has. Yet these are the people who finally brought Jesus of Nazareth to me in a way that actually took root. I will always honor that.

I think as he came to understand my background, my friend was a little curious. After all, the Emergent conversation has spoken a lot about the postmodern or post-postmodern culture and the way it relates to Christian faith and understanding.  Again, I can’t really speak to the motives or thoughts of another, but I do think he wondered how someone like me would react to things within the emerging conversation (whether people were actually associated with Emergent or not). He pointed out a few articles on the Ooze to me. (I’ve never been fond of forums, so I never have read all that much there unless someone pointed something out and asked me to read it. If it doesn’t come to me in the form of email, text, or full text in my RSS Reader, the odds of me following something over time are vanishingly small.) He loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy to see what I thought of it. He pointed out some of the main voices in the conversation and I quickly found others on my own. My cultural and spiritual shaping were deeply pluralistic and relativistic. Those have both been altered by and through Jesus of Nazareth, but they very much remain my default position. They are a constituent component of the lens through which I perceive reality. It was strange to me to hear evangelical voices at least attempting to communicate and approach God in ways that were often akin to my native mode.

I thank him deeply for that. And not really for introducing me to the specific voices that he did, as much as by expanding where I looked to try to understand the God of this thing called Christianity. I was mostly reading Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, Brother Lawrence, St. John of the Cross and similar voices from the past. On the more modern side, the only two I read a lot of works by were C.S. Lewis and Max Lucado. (Yes, Max is the prototypical evangelical. But he’s also a great storyteller. And he tells stories about a God you might actually want to know and worship. I find a lot of people knock him simply because he isn’t other than who and what he is.) Notably, if I had not encountered this conversation, I don’t know if I would have stumbled across Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and Scot McKnight at all. And it was through Scot McKnight that I discovered modern Orthodoxy and that there actually were still people today who believe stuff about God and Jesus and humanity similar to what  those who lived and wrote in the first millenium of Christianity believed. I was becoming discouraged because it seemed that nobody actually still believed the stories and descriptions of God and tales of what it meant to be a human being that I found most interesting, provocative, and compelling. And it didn’t seem like many I heard today were actually describing the God I encountered and whom I thought I was getting to know.

Would I still be Christian if I had not encountered those modern voices above and others like them? I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I do know that my faith was wearing awfully thin. Even for me, it’s hard to constantly be among people who see God in ways you don’t and never will. I’m pretty used to not fitting in. That’s the story of my life. But a decade of it wears on even me, especially when the God most often described is the one that’s pretty typical in conservative evangelicalism. Further, I was questioning if I had done the right thing introducing my children to this environment and allowing it to shape them. (In all honesty, that remains an open question in my mind. You do the best that you know how to do at the time when raising kids and pray you don’t screw up too badly.) I didn’t learn anything about postmodern culture, of course. I’m as much a face of postmodern formation as any other you’ll find. But I did find a Christianity worth continuing to believe, perhaps not directly in Emergent, but certainly through the process and connections engaged in its conversation.

So am I disappointed with Emergent? No. I find it wryly amusing that some apparently expected some sort of revolutionary movement from the organization. There’s not a lot of room for revolution when threading between Scylla and Charybdis, though some engage in it nonetheless. Emergent says valuable things in a context where they often are not said. That’s useful. And it helps people navigate the fractured chaos that Christianity has become in ways that do not destroy faith. That’s valuable. Disappointment implies expectations. And expectations tend to tell us more about those who hold them than they do about the target or focus of those expectations.

Or at least so it seems to me.


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.