Who Am I?

On the Incarnation of the Word 32 – Whom the Demons Confess

Posted: September 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Athanasius continues to defend the Resurrection in this section by emphasizing that the demons flee from the power of Christ and at his name. And this would not be true if Jesus were dead. Demons do not fear a dead man. He ends this section with a marvelous statement of our faith.

As then demons confess Him, and His works bear Him witness day by day, it must be evident, and let none brazen it out against the truth, both that the Saviour raised His own body, and that He is the true Son of God, being from Him, as from His Father, His own Word, and Wisdom, and Power, Who in ages later took a body for the salvation of all, and taught the world concerning the Father, and brought death to nought, and bestowed incorruption upon all by the promise of the Resurrection, having raised His own body as a first-fruits of this, and having displayed it by the sign of the Cross as a monument of victory over death and its corruption.

Amen and amen. This is what we believe as Christians. This is good news indeed!

An earlier thought by Athanasius in this section sent my mind wandering. I’m going to take a moment to explore that rabbit trail. Athanasius writes the following.

For it is God’s peculiar property at once to be invisible and yet to be known from His works, as has been already stated above.

Athanasius is explaining how we can know the Resurrection from the works that Jesus continues to accomplish even though we do not presently see him in the flesh. However, it recalled to my mind the distinction in Eastern theology between God’s essence and his energies. God cannot be known in his essence. (In truth, we can say the same of other human beings. Every other person is essentially unknowable to us in their inner essence.) But God is known through his energies, through the impact he has in creation, through his actions, and through the power of his presence. We see this in Scripture, of course. And as Christians, we know this to be true. We live within the power and assurance of the energies of God. Those energies are not something created by God. They are not some kind of byproduct. They are God.

Often we call these energies at work in our lives grace. It seems to me that Western Christianity (at least in its Protestant form) has done something almost sacrilegious by reducing the concept of grace to unmerited favor. Yes, of course we have God’s unmerited favor. God is a good God who loves mankind.  Every human being who has ever and will ever live has the utterly unmerited favor and love of God upon them. Scripture assures us of that in both the Old and New Testament. Our God is not some changing deity who one moment looks on us with disfavor and in another with favor. He is a good and constant God who blesses the just and the unjust alike. Certainly we have the unmerited favor and forgiveness of God. The Incarnation and the Cross proved that beyond all doubt.

But that has nothing to do with grace. Those of us who follow Jesus have the presence and power of God acting mystically in and through us. These energies of God are grace. The more we learn to live within the presence and activity of God, the more grace we experience. As Paul prays, we grow in grace. You cannot grow in “unmerited favor”. No, we are growing in union with God. Grace and peace are active, participatory experiences of the life of God. We participate in the life of God and grow in union with him in his energies. Grace is one of the most powerful theological statements of the New Testament. Let’s not neuter it.


The Didache 24 – Pray This Way

Posted: July 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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

Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory for ever..

Pray this three times each day.

Once again, we see the Jewish influence in the Teaching. Set prayers three times a day were and remain an important feature of Jewish daily life. Those who attempted to trap Daniel knew he faithfully prayed three times each day. The Amidah is the prayer used today and when possible it is said communally (in groups of at least ten men), but can be prayed individually. We see this rhythm of set prayers repeatedly in the Gospels and Acts. The above is the prayer Jesus gave his followers when they asked him to give them a prayer like John the Baptist gave his followers prayers.

The Christian practice of set prayers is a rich and deep tradition that began centered on the prayer above and probably the Shema as Jesus changed it. As a rule, Christians faced East to pray. (Satan and evil were associated with the west while Jesus was associated with the east.) Churches tended to be built with the altar in the east. The tradition of prayer has not yet declined as much as fasting has, but in the West at least it has become a shadow of what it once was. Most people seem to only know of intercessory prayer, which while part of the reason and purpose for prayer, has traditionally only been a small part. And people seem to take Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing as hyperbole rather than something we should actually work to accomplish.

Prayer is a mystery of communion with God. When we pray, we are mystically connected to God whether we “feel” anything or not. The rhythm of prayer is for our healing so that we come again and again to God, shaping ourselves into people who seek God, until one day we find that we do not desire to depart. That is, of course, what it means to pray without ceasing. Throughout the course of our day, we do not turn from God. We are continually aware of his presence with us.

But this is hard to do. And I would say impossible if we do not establish rhythms of prayer in our life. I know that I’m not very good at this at all. But I’ve had a thirst to become someone who prays for a long time now. The Orthodox have a saying. One who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays. I reflect on that and it seems to me there is a lot of truth in it. What better way is there to learn to know God (for is that not the goal of the theologian?) than to stand with him and commune with him?


Celiac and the Cost of Cheating

Posted: June 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I thought I would pause in my series on the Didache to reflect on this video by Dr. Vikki Petersen that I think relates to what I tried to express yesterday. In it she is answering a question from a woman who suffered severe weight loss as a result of celiac. (From what I’ve read, weight loss is a symptom to one degree or another in roughly two-thirds of those with the disease. The other third tends to experience weight gain.) She spends a good deal of time discussing healthy food that will help the celiac heal. Toward the end of the video, however, Dr. Petersen discusses the consequences of “cheating” on the gluten free diet for the celiac.

As she notes, sometimes and for some people the consequences are obvious and clearly directly related to consuming gluten. For others, however, the consequences are less obvious and the linkage between what they ate and what happens to their body is not as clear. Yet in both cases the ultimate price is the same.

Is that not how it is with the two ways? Sometimes the consequences when we choose the way of death are clearly visible and obvious to ourselves and to others. But often they are not as clearly related or as obvious. What price do we pay when we choose to inhabit our pride, for example? Unless we take it to such an extreme that we alienate those we encounter, probably little that is immediately visible or obvious. We might even look praiseworthy to others and to ourselves. And yet we are living and breathing within the way of death as we do so. We are shaping ourselves into distorted beings unable to stand in the unveiled light of God.

God gives himself to us. Jesus has healed the human nature and made it capable of true union with God. The Spirit inhabits our bodies transforming them and limited only when and to the extent we set our will against his work. We must learn to worship God, to take his reality into our bodies, to submit our will freely and allow his substance to work within us — individually and corporately.

There a two ways, a way of life and a way of death, and a great difference between the two.

So with celiac. So with the whole of life.


Beyond Justification 5 – What does deification mean?

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

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

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

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

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

Justification ==> Sanctification ==> Glorification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beyond Justification 3 – What is the goal of the human being?

Posted: May 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

We are not only being saved from something, we are being saved toward something. What is the goal of our salvation?

When you immerse yourself in the ecumenical councils and the writings surrounding them, you quickly find that you cannot discuss salvation without discussing Christ. You cannot even begin to understand what it means to be saved until you understand who Christ is. As St. Gregory the Theologian famously proclaimed:

What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united with his divinity that is saved.

This is the reason that Jesus had to assume our fallen nature, die, and be resurrected. We first had to be freed from death. But that was never the ultimate goal for humanity. That was the work of redemption, restoration, and healing. But the goal? I don’t think so. For what were we created? In order to begin to answer that question, consider another one first. If mankind had never fallen would the Incarnation still have been needed? Referencing St. Maximos the Confessor and others, from the Beyond Justification article:

However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Absolutely. In the Resurrection Jesus emptied Hades, that is to say he defeated death universally for every human being. This is the gift of God we were powerless to achieve on our own. But that act alone only brings us back to something like the starting point. By joining his nature to ours, Jesus makes it possible for us to unite ourselves to God. In the story of man in the garden, man had the potential for immortality or for mortality. That much was in our nature. But we were still created either way and the uncreated God was beyond our ken and ultimately unknowable. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God united human nature to his nature, changing what it means to be human and providing us the means to unite, to become one with, God. To be truly human is to be the one standing in creation such that when creation beholds us, it beholds God. This is what it means to be an eikon living fully in the likeness of God. We are meant to reflect God into creation as we participate in the communal life of God.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification. God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins. His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword. The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality. Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected. Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality. John Meyendorff summarizes the significance of the Cross for the Christian East as follows:

…In the East, the Cross is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which “satisfies” a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for one’s sins. As George Florovsky rightly puts it: “the death on the Cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord.” The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious circle of sin and corruption.

Exactly. We need forgiveness. We have done wrong. But in deed and parable and voice we see in Scripture a God overflowing with mercy and forgiveness. Heck, that was Jonah’s complaint about God and he was proven right! The Cross was not necessary for God to forgive us. If all we had needed was forgiveness, God had (and has) an inexhaustible overabundance. God has never had a forgiveness problem and we do him wrong when we attribute such a problem to him. But don’t worry, I’m sure he forgives us for the poor way we portray his lovingkindness and mercy. 😉

Tomorrow I’ll explore more fully the goal which is variously called theosis or deification, becoming one with God in Christ.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 9

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I closed my train of thought in my last post with the idea that, though God has not given me celiac disease for any reason whatsoever, he has been quietly at work preparing me and giving me the tools, should I care to employ them, to stand and perhaps even grow in the face of this disease. For the reality is this: though the diagnosis is still so new to me that I have a difficult time truly wrapping my head around it, celiac disease has been working havoc in my body for years now. My gastroenterologist can’t even say how long it’s been active, but from the visible evidence and the other physical effects, it has clearly been a long time. That means that for at least some significant portion of the journey of discovery about Christian fasting that I have described in this series, I was actually suffering from this autoimmune disease.

I may not have known I had celiac disease, but God certainly did.

Now, I suppose I could be angry at God for knowing I was sick and doing nothing to heal me or somehow making me aware of it sooner. But that seems rather pointless to me. Further, I know that God’s purpose is to bring me into his life, to have me and all humanity participate in union with God and with each other, to conform us to the image of his Son, who lived the life of the faithful man God intended each of us to live.

My core cultural formation was such that the center of my being was shaped in more hedonistic and narcissistic ways than not. Would God physically healing me, especially if I didn’t even know I was sick, move me closer toward the center of the life of God? Or is my true and holistic healing to be found in the proper ascetical practice that allows me to heal from the effects of this disease? Might not that path carry healing not only of body, but also of spirit and will? I see the possibility. I see it through the lens of all I have read and heard and encountered of Christian fasting. No, I’m not angry at God at all. I know him. I know how much he loves all of us. And I’m beginning, just beginning, to understand something of the way of life. I understand enough to know that I desire more than simply a body which functions properly. I want to become truly human.

So no, this is not the fast I’ve chosen. It’s not a fast I want. But this is the fast I’ve been given. Will I have it be a fast for the physical and spiritual healing of my whole soul? Or will I have it be a fast of misery and destruction? Will I take advantage of the tools that God has graciously prepared me to use, even if I am still a neophyte and clumsy in their use? Will I choose instead to fast the fast of demons, a narcissistic fast, a fast that is all about me? Or will I ignore the fast altogether and destroy my body? Those are truly the only real choices I face at this  juncture. As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Narrow is the way of life. Broad is the way of death and destruction.

I choose life, in the fullness of the sense of the word.

This is my fast.