Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.


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.


Fasting and Humility Redux

Posted: June 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fasting and Humility Redux

I wrote a few days ago about Fasting and Humility as I’ve struggled with the necessity for being “out there” with your condition that celiac imposes on you when you have it. Since then, I’ve encountered the following quote by St. Isaac the Syrian. It’s caused me to pause and reflect a bit more.

If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for
humility.

This is, of course, exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. We do not practice any discipline or virtue for the purpose of achieving some desired goal or reward. We cannot manipulate God or other human beings in that way successfully or without ultimately dehumanizing ourselves. It is only as we learn to serve our Lord in humble obedience that we begin to see any benefit from anything we do.

Yet true humility is perhaps one of the most universally difficult things for us all to achieve, even fleetingly. I do not wish to be quietly humble. To the extent they notice me at all, I want others to notice my excellence, not my failings. We want to be first, not last. Even when we try to turn that upside down and say we are seeking to be last, we make the pursuit of “lastness” a competition unto itself. Humility itself does not seem to me to be something you can actually try to achieve. It seems to me that if it can be achieved, it is only achieved by emptying yourself of the things for which you are striving and filling yourself with God and the loving service of other unlovable human beings in whatever way God desires. That’s speculation on my part, of course, since I’ve certainly not done that at all. But it seems to me that it’s at least part of what I’ve seen in the few I’ve encountered who are humble.

If this fast can in some measure teach me humility, so mote it be.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.