A Feast of Joyful Sorrow

Today (Aug 29) on the Orthodox church calendar is the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner. It’s an odd feast in that it’s the only feast in the Orthodox Church that I know of that is commemorated by a strict fast rather than a feast. John the Forerunner is an important figure in Orthodoxy. He represents the end of the Old Covenant (while Mary represents the beginning of New Covenant). It’s in the contrast between John and Mary that we can appreciate this odd Feast/Fast day.

There is a wonderful oral tradition about Thomas and Mary at the time of her death. Mary was human exactly like all the rest of us, and because she is human like the rest of us, she died like the rest of us. After her death and funeral, the disciples sealed her in her tomb (the traditional means of burying people at that time and place). The story is that Thomas was several days late to the funeral (just as he was several days late to Jesus’ resurrection appearances). Against the other disciples’ advice, he insisted that the tomb be unsealed so he could offer his final farewell to her body. (Christians, because Jesus Christ both created and then recreated creation, give great honor to the physical world as the place where God works, thus Christians give great honor to dead bodies.) When they opened the tomb so Thomas could properly honor it, her body was gone. The tradition is that her body was translated to heaven in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah.

The theological point of this tradition is that it illustrates the staggering significance of the incarnation. Because of Christ, everything is changed. Not only are our souls saved, but all creation is transformed, including our bodies. Heaven is not a spiritual place somewhere out there, it is, as John describes it in the Apocalypse, a new heaven and a new earth with all of us feasting eternally at the Banquet of the Lamb.

And just as Mary’s ending is befitting the first Christian, the first person of the New Covenant, so John the Forerunner’s end is befitting the end of the Old Covenant and the old order of the world. Sinfulness is seemingly woven into the very fabric of the created order (that is, the old order) and does not give up without a fight. Jesus compared the end of the age to the time of Noah (ie, the flood) and Sodom and Gomorrah (ie, fire falling from the sky). This idea of a watery and fiery end of the world as we have come to know it speaks to the violence involved in extricating God’s good creation (the emergence of the New Covenant) from grip of evil. This salvation that God brings to the world is, from this perspective, a terrible thing.

John the Forerunner’s death by beheading, brought about by the whims of infighting in a wicked ruling family who ultimately manipulated a young (“innocent”?) girl into requesting this gruesome death, is a perfect metaphor for the end of this age. It is terrible and savage, and yet it is necessary so that all can be made new. It is why the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner is the only feast in the Orthodox Church celebrated, not with feasting, but with a strict fast. We joy at that which is to come even as we weep and wail at how it must be accomplished.

So, may you have joyful sorrow on this, the most odd of feast days, commemorating John the Forerunner’s terrible death.



A Podcast on Why Christians Might Like Secularism

I want to commend a recent podcast by Fr Stephen Ritter, an Orthodox musician and priest from Georgia and make a few comments about it (because he certainly sparked my imagination!). In this podcast he is speaking of the heresy (his word, not mine – that’s a technical word and I’m curious what heresy he’s talking about) “that says that God can be confined in a special, sacramental manner, in a temple, or ark …” He goes on to say that this “heresy of confinement, of setting limits on the Lord, must be fought on all fronts.”

We must never be accused of stargazing or any sort pantheism. This must always be made clear, and that we see in the Lord’s works the Lord himself. But neither must we succumb to the disease of secularism; that which attempts to dissect our Christian lives into categories with the pertenances and attributes common to the artificial distinction of sacred and secular. For the Christian there is no such thing. All of life is sacred and is made so by the appearance of and acceptance of the grace which our Lord Jesus Christ provides the whole world.

There are a variety of reasons that this is so, but I found one to be particularly insightful.

It is too easy to give into the temptation of secularism and try to parcel our lives into the “here” of church and the “there” of everything else. … We leave behind the spiritual because we intrinsically deny that the spiritual is found in many other places. We might not realize this, but the genuine practice of too many Orthodox proves the point. They have adopted the secular heresy into their everyday lives. … In truth for many,

(And I love this sentence!)

life may actually be a little more comfortable if we feel that we are in our world, God is in his, and we don’t have to constantly deal with him.

That’s an uncomfortably close shot across the bow! Bless you Fr Stephen.

Bob and Carol and Adam and Steve

Yesterday’s epistle reading in the Breviary caught my attention, given all the hoopla over same-sex marriage here in the U.S.A. The specific part of the reading I have in mind is 2:1-6. This is the Breviary translation:

And you were dead, through the crimes and the sins in which you used to live when you were following the way of this world, obeying the ruler who governs the air, the spirit who is at work in the rebellious. We all were among them too in the past, living sensual lives, ruled entirely by our own physical desires and our own ideas; so that by nature we were as much under God’s anger as the rest of the world. But God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved – and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus.

The American norm of romance and marriage is that two people fall in love, learn that they’re compatible (or, if they use eHarmony, learn that they’re compatible and then fall in love), and then get married. If it fits into their life goals they have kids. If they fall out of love, they get divorced. If they fall in love again, they get married again. Often there’s a great deal of overlap at this point.

In short, marriage is mostly an extension of our sexuality. And by “sexuality,” I have in mind a rather vague term that has something to do with defining who we are as a person, the fulfillment of our humanity, giving us meaning in life, and is without any question a fundamental and universal human right. Since all this variety of sexuality (and here I have in mind the idea of falling into and out of and into love and then acting on those impulses) is, according to our societal rhetoric, an expression of our human identity, we all (including Christians individually and the Church in general) go along with it without too much objection.

Specific congregations and Christian denominations may not be happy with this state of affairs, but in almost all cases, as long as there is some hand-wringing and confession of sin in private counseling sessions and on occasion, follow-up counseling) we are quite content to forgive all these heterosexual folks their sins and privately smile at their foibles and continue on in their church life pretty much as it was before.

In short, we are quick to forgive heterosexuals for their sexual sins without significance consequence and little consideration that it’s actually a grave sin.

But all of the above is an expression of what Eph. 2:1-6 is talking about. We live “sensual lives, ruled entirely by our own physical desires and our own ideas.”

I believe we Christians ought to be far more hard nosed about this stuff. There is a manner of life that is far superior to the above that God calls us to in which we bring all of our disordered desires or passions under control. We ought to confess that we are ruled by our disordered desires and that it is sin. And as the Church, we should be quick to identify such sin for what it is, quick to encourage our members to a higher life, and quick to forgive.

If Bob and Carol have disordered desires that compel them to marry merely for romantic reasons, cheat on each other, merely for romantic reasons and physical needs, that is no different than if Adam and Steve do the same thing. In turn, we should be just as quick to forgive Adam and Steve as we are Bob and Carol.

It is the height of hypocrisy to let an essentially unrepentant Bob be a deacon and Carol be an elder while at the same time disallowing Adam and Steve from participation in the church. All four of them are expressing their disordered desires and “following the way of this world, obeying the ruler who governs the air, the spirit who is at work in the rebellious.”

It’s time to call sin what it is and to quit excusing boy on girl sin while at the same time being utterly horrified by boy on boy or girl on girl sin. Bob, Carol, Adam, Steve, me, you … we’re all in the same boat. We all live disordered lives and desperately need the church to help us sort out what is beyond our individual abilities to cope with. And when that happens we can all begin to experience God’s generous mercy.

On Allowing Virtue to Minister to our Faith

I have always been fascinated by 2 Peter.

Well, “always” being as far back as when we translated portions of it, along with 1 Peter, in Advanced Greek in Bible College. The first chapter has that wonderfully scandalous (from a Protestant perspective) verse about actually participating in God. When translating it became painfully obvious that the two epistles had different authors. This latter problem was the very reason Mr. Parkhurst made us have a go at translating portions of the two Peters. I have always wondered what he actually made of the book, because he would never say; he would just smile his sly smile and remind us that it is in the New Testament, after all. (The official position of the college – a position that could get one kicked out of school if student, faculty, or janitor dared to disagree – was that the Apostle Peter wrote both epistles that bear his name.)

These difficulties – and the fact that we dared not talk about them outside of class, given the rigid conservative views of Big Sky Bible College, thus creating a sort of secret knowledge club among those of us in Advanced Greek – made me a passionate lover of the epistle. Bible College students are by nature of the Bible College experience a conservative bunch, and so it was that 2 Peter was a key part of what might be called my college rebellion experience.

The downside of this history is that it has always been difficult for me to talk about 2 Peter without descending into a “gotcha mentality” or using the book as a springboard for argument rather than a text of scripture. With the Feast of Transfiguration being recently celebrated (Aug.6) my attention has once again focused on 2 Peter because the first chapter is one of the great Transfiguration texts, but this year I wondered what would happen if I could somehow set aside my long history of 2 Peter as a college rebellion text and take a fresh look at it as scripture.

Even when attempting a new mindset, I am struck by how odd the letter is. It is less a well thought out missive and more a rant and therefore doesn’t lend itself to an outline. It is broadly divided into three sections: (1) Minister to your faith by practicing virtue. [1:1-11] (2) There is good teaching and false teaching; avoid the false teaching – and let’s say lots of bad things about the false teachers. [1:12-2:22] (3) God is patient with our foibles and this should spur us on to zeal in doing good. [3:1-18]

The second section, his rant about and lurid description of false teachers contrasted to his own holy experience, makes up more than 53% of the epistle. The first section is less than 16% of the letter and the last section is less than 31%. In that long section ranting about false teachers, the only thing we find out about them is that they somehow deny the second coming of Christ. It’s not even clear what form that denial takes. It’s a very broad stroke against a rather shadowy opponent.

This middle section is great grist for the mill of college age rebellion. It is vague enough that it can be applied to a large number of perceived enemies, and the language is so colorful and mean-spirited that it provides great sound bytes for any rant that a college radical might want to concoct on his own – not that I ever did anything of the sort. 🙂

But it occurs to me, now that I’ve mellowed with middle age, that this is one of the great strengths of the book. False teaching is very creative and ever changing. If the author were to define his opponents too narrowly we might miss the fact that the type of false teachers he’s talking about are always with us. The specifics may change, but they are typical in that they always deny or distort some fundamental truth of the Gospel. The problem isn’t just these false teachers in particular but false teaching in general.

Similarly, the author spends little time defining our faith, our call, and our election. He has a profound trust in the Church; although it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that there is a place in which one can find trustworthy witness to the Truth. Certainly the truth can be found in Peter and Paul (although  there are things that are hard to understand in Paul according to 3:16), and by implication that line of witnesses and leaders that have remained faithful to this revelation; in other words, the true Church.

In this day and age that is admittedly problematic. There are at least five great traditions of Church life (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Scholastic Protestantism/Evangelicalism, and Pentecostal/Charismatic). Each group supposedly has cause to find heresy in the other four groups (as well as in their own broad traditions). So it is critical that we seek to remain zealous and faithful to both the Living Christ and to the tradition in which we believe that the Living Christ is best expressed — “Lone Ranger Christianity” is simply not an option because we are too prone to interpreting scripture to our own advantage, leading to our being carried away by the siren song of the same self-indulgent false teaching of which 2 Peter rails.

The thing that 2 Peter does, possibly better than any other single book of the New Testament, is to describe how the relationship between faith and works should actually work in our lives. This brilliant description is found in the first section of the epistle.

He begins by stating emphatically that faith is given by God. We cannot manufacture it within ourselves. We obtain faith in the righteousness of God (1:1). This righteousness is revealed emphatically and with great glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, to which Peter (as well as the unnamed James, and John) were eyewitnesses. They didn’t make it up; they saw it. As witnesses, they reported it. And as we become “partakers in the divine nature” we too experience and know it, not as some feeling or intuition, but as a given reality in which we know through participation.

And then we are called to do something very specific with that faith: we are to minister to that faith that has been placed into our being. Here I am not talking about ministers as “Preachers” or “Priests” or “Ministers of  Word and Sacrament.” Instead, the word “minister” is more akin to servants or people given a specific task. Members of the Canadian cabinet, or as they call it, “the Ministry” (as in many other countries) are “ministers of the crown.” The “Minister of Foreign Affairs” is given the task of ensuring that Canada’s foreign affairs are in order and that Canada’s place in the world is enhanced through his ministry.

In the same way 2 Peter tells us to minister to our faith. That is, we should do things that strengthen, enhance, and deepen our faith. The RSV translation is a bit misleading. In 1:5 it says, “For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue …” The Greek word translated “supplement” is a little used (in the New Testament) Greek word, epichoregeo, which means “to minister to or to assist.” This is what nurses and household assistants do. It is why secretaries are often considered more critical to an effective office than their boss. “Ministers of Finance” don’t have the money, nor do they control the money; but their action or inaction can cause the money supply to expand or contract  in such a way that can make an economy grow or fail.

Similarly our works do not create faith nor are they the same thing as faith, but they do minister to our faith and are so important that they can make that faith grow or fail. Second Peter offers up a list of works or virtues that come straight out of Greek Stoicism: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Paul has similar lists. I suspect the point is not to exegete each one of these terms, but rather to recognize that the things we do in order to minister to our faith must be pretty broad based and involve every part of our lives and thinking. It is not enough to just read spiritual literature, neither is it enough to go out and build houses for the poor. Each of those are excellent activities, but our efforts must be holistic rather than narrow. In the Orthodox Church this effort is summed up by the three words “prayer, alms, and fasting.” The Roman Catholics are especially fond of Paul’s seven virtues. The Presbyterians are especially known for their work in the world, the Mennonites and Methodists for the holy life, and the Evangelicals for their missionary service. All of these are expressions of this singular idea that we must minister to our faith if our faith is to flourish.

James says “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:25). Paul was not especially good at explaining how the two are related. He says that salvation is by faith alone in Romans and Galatians, but in Ephesians he observes that we were “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (2:10). It always feels like Paul struggled with a dichotomy between the two. It is the author of 2 Peter who manages to explain how faith is utterly preeminent and yet completely powerless without the virtues. Our works minister to our God-given faith, making it something useful and salvific.

Striking that chord, which rings from ancient times into eternity, of the perfect harmony of faith and works is one of the great gifts 2 Peter offers Christians through the ages. In this most recent consideration of the book, that is this glorious truth I saw and I revel in. Thanks be to God.

The Trinity, the Heart, and Human Unity

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is esoteric enough and the arguments that led to its formulation are far enough in the past that it is easy to forget that the doctrine of the Trinity came about to explain and help Christians understand their experience of God. The doctrine is descriptive of our experience before it is prescriptive for our belief.

The recent writings of Arch. Sophrony and his disciple, Arch. Zacharias, offer a case in point. Sophrony, for most of his life a monk on Mt. Athos, saw what was happening in the interior lives of certain monks and sought to understand it. Eventually he and Zacharias began to write about what they witnessed. But before we explore what they said we must review the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, with its dynamic reality in mind.

We might say that the Father exists permanently or eternally. We might say the Word and the Spirit also exist permanently. But it would be inaccurate to say that the Father exists “essentially” as Father, etc. Rather it is the Father, Word, and Spirit together that exist “essentially.”  (That is, the divine essence — a technical theological term from at least the 3rd century — exists in God’s unity.) The three persons of the Trinity “co-inhere” as an expression of this essential unity. One Person cannot exist without the others for they exist in the dynamic flow into and out of each other that we call Love.

When God created humans something very similar was created into us. There is something that all humans have in common and that each one of us express individually. But at the same time, we are not fully human by ourselves. An essential part of our humanity is this something that we share together.

Theologians typically call this human nature. Just as all three persons of the Trinity share a singular essence, so all humans share a singular nature. I suppose we could call this thing that humans share “human essence,” but that term would easily mislead us. Father, Word, and Spirit flow into and out of each other continually, eternally, expansively, and necessarily. Their existence as Father, Word, and Spirit is impossible without that dynamic, just as it would be impossible to speak of the divine essence separate from the manifestation of that essence as Father, Word, and Spirit. Because God is eternal and everywhere present, this dynamic of one essence and three persons is the thing that makes God God.

But humans aren’t infinite in time and space as God is. We humans are finite; even though we necessarily share a human nature, the boundaries of our finitude mean that we experience it differently than God does. We are not automatically aware of our nature; rather, we are aware of our boundaries:  our body is enclosed by skin. That which is outside our skin is not body. Our memories only go back so far, and we are very much aware that one day we will die and be separated from those we love. So while there are fundamental similarities in human relationships and the Divine Relationship, the fact that we are finite necessarily means there are fundamental differences. So it is that we call this thing that all humans share our “nature” rather than “essence.”

It’s hard to talk about the Holy Trinity without also talking about Christology — for it is through Christ that we first experienced the triune-ness of God. Jesus Christ is unique because he is both Divine and human, Creator and created, infinite and finite. He is the Word, the Son of God, one person of the Trinity. But he also took on flesh by being born of Mary and is thus human, the Son of Man, and shares in our human nature. Because he is infinite God he has the ability to share in our nature fully (that is, in a way we cannot share in our human nature because we are finite). Sophrony’s insight mentioned above fits into the discussion right at this juncture.

Because we participate in the human nature, a benefit of the incarnation is that since Jesus Christ became human and shared in our nature, we can learn to share in the Divine Nature through our participation in Christ who participates in the human nature and the Divine Essence. Sophrony’s insight (not unique to him, but he explored the insight in a way that no one else has) is that through Christ and in the Life-giving Spirit, as we begin to share in the Divine Nature we also increasingly and more fully share in the Human Nature that we cannot do without participation in the divine life. To be saved is not only to draw into union with God, it is to become more fully human by transcending our finitude and more fully experiencing our human nature.

As I become one with God, I become one with you.

As I become one with God, I become one with Father Sophrony and the Apostle Paul.

As I become one with God, I become one with Osama bin Laden and Bashar al-Assad and Pol Pot.

And this is the heart of our salvation.

Fr Sophrony developed the language and ideas of “entering into our heart” and “the expansion of the heart” in order to explain this. Our Heart is our true being. It is distinct from our will, intellect, and emotions. (These are what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh.”) The will, intellect, and emotions are noisy and always drawing attention to themselves. They always want more and more and are never satisfied. All three are easily seduced and entrapped and then they do a good job of convincing us that this is the way things ought to be. Just as together, Paul calls these “the flesh,” so when they get excited and out of control, the fathers call them “the passions.”

“The Heart,” on the other hand, exists beyond these things in the deep interior of our being. Because in our sinful state we not only live on, but thrive on our passions, the heart atrophies and shrinks into tiny silence. The heart typically becomes such a small and utterly silent thing that when we want to start paying attention to it (and through to God), the heart within us can become nearly impossible to find. Only through the enlivening energy of the Holy Spirit and conquering power of Christ over our passions is it ever possible to vivify the heart. Only through the discipline of spiritual silence made possible in the Sabbath Rest of Christ that the author to the Hebrews promises, can we ever hope to enter into that gentle, quiet space of our heart.

And please note that this is an exactly opposite way of conceiving our being as in popular culture. In pop culture, to follow our heart is to follow the whims of our passions.  The irresistible tug of desire is thought to be fulfillment. The feeding of our passions is thought to be the expression of our true self rather than the expression of our enslaved desires being pulled this way and that by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride of life” in James’ words.

Through spiritual discipline we can begin to descend deeper and deeper into our heart.  Because of our salvation and the process of union with Christ and new life in the Spirit, as we descend deeper and deeper into our true heart, we take the true God into our true heart and begin the process of actually uniting with Him. As we learn to dwell in our true heart, the living God begins to soften, enliven, and stretch our heart, the infinite God begins to stretch our heart, as if it were a balloon expanding with the winds of the Spirit of Life.

And as our true heart begins to slowly and incrementally expand we begin to participate in our human nature in a way that was never possible when we were defined merely be the limits of our flesh and bone. We are now in Christ and Christ is in us, and because of the infinite possibilities of this mystery, we are now in human nature and human nature — the full extent of human nature — is in us. And the miracle of true human unity begins to occur.

At first it seems contradictory — a sort of paradox that even as we ascend to heaven and to God, we descend into our very selves. The Apostle Paul says that we need to die to ourselves to become alive to Christ. Isn’t Sophrony contradicting the Apostle? No. For when we die to ourselves, we die to passions (will, intellect, emotions), that perfectly created triumvirate of will/intellect/emotion that has become, through their noisy and insistent strivings, our evil overlords who distort our view of reality and drag us away from God and life, and convince us that it is fun and wonderful and fulfilling and proper in the process. Descending into the heart is painful and brutal. It is a difficult and bloody battle as the passions, starved of their fuel, begin to atrophy while the true heart begins to soften and grow and becomes quietly attentive to God who is now both within and above.

To a degree we can ascend to Christ in our new spiritual life without attending to our heart; and to a degree we can descend into the true heart without striving on our heavenly journey, but Fr Sophrony believes that ultimately to do one we must also do the other. We are not shells from which we escape to flee to heaven, as the ancient Gnostics taught, neither are we secular beings who find fulfillment within as the ancient Stoics taught: We are spiritual and physical and it is necessary that both play their proper role in our salvation. As we ascend to Christ we can descend into our true heart. As we descend into our true heart we can ascend to heaven. The deeper into ourselves we go, the more we expand and become, for the first time, truly aware of other humans and even all creation. And as we see more and more of ourselves, of other human beings, and of all creation, the more we see God with unveiled faces.

Scripture, The Word, and Schnauzers

I almost always enjoy quotes and excerpts I read from Michael Horton and the program he hosts, The White Horse Inn. On occasion, as I did again this week, I listen to a whole episode. Every time I do I find it very disconcerting and my “this is so wrong” klaxon starts blaring in my head. For those unfamiliar with Horton, he would be properly classified as a “rationalist evangelical” on the American Christian taxonomy tree. (That is very similar to the environment in which I was raised, so this essay is not unlike the righteous indignation a smoker can produce over cigarettes.) He and his cohorts are conservative Presbyterians from the old Scottish line of hard-scrabble rationalists who love systematic theology and traditional (as in “Scottish Kirk of 200 years ago” tradition) worship with a strong bias toward sacramental theology, that is, the actual John Calvin (and, narrowly in terms of the sacraments, diametrically opposed to what we typically call “Calvinists” today).

The centerpiece of their worship is “the preaching of the Word” and the centerpiece of their piety is the study of scripture in the context of prayer. The most hard-core of this flavor of Christians sing only the psalter in their worship and devotion (which, is not a criticism, merely an observation: One can’t get much purer in song than the Psalter.) And it is precisely this characteristic that causes my “this is so wrong” klaxon to blare in my head every time I listen to an episode of The White Horse Inn.

Ah, but how can the preaching and studying of scripture be so wrong? The one sentence answer is (and I preface this by emphasizing that I am not accusing these folks of heresy — it’s merely the context of the quote), “Heresy is not wrong teaching, it is an overemphasis on one facet of correct teaching at the expense of the whole gem of truth.” (Can’t remember who said it. Ironically, it may have been Richard Niebuhr summarizing one of the fathers or councils.)

Why, exactly, is the long form Michael Horton so klaxon worthy? First, it is the fact that for the whole span of church history in the east, “the passions” (those things that distract us from God and reality and enslave us in and to our sins) can be categorized under three categories (contemporary terms, since the traditional English theological terms are no longer used in everyday speech) of Will, Reason, and Emotion. These are the three ephemera that entrap us in the power of sin and death. Protecting us against  undisciplined Will, Reason, and Emotion, is the Heart, which, when it’s vivified, stands guard at the door of the true self where we commune with and enter into union with God.

This is not to say that Will, Reason, and Emotion are bad. They are created by God and thus an integral part of what makes us human. But all three are terribly excitable and exciting (!). An overemphasis on the devotional study, exegesis, and sermonizing of scripture without the full context of union with God that is achieved through — not the scriptures but — the Living Word and Spirit, tends to excite our reason with thoughts about God without actually drawing us into union and true fellowship with God. Of course, the same can be said about Emotion. (And rationalist Evangelicals often make this point.) Singing praise songs that are more akin to popular love songs on the radio, praying in such a way that we enter into a frenzy of emotion, etc., will lead us to an emotional state that make us feel good about ourselves and about God, and thus is very satisfying, but has little to do with actual union with God and may actually prevent it, because we become so emotionally attached to our current state of being which we easily confuse with being attached to God.

Consider two Schnauzers from the same litter; one is well trained and the other raised in the typical American household. Both are on leashes and being walked down the street where there are things such as a lady watering her flowers, a prowling cat, a squirrel climbing a tree, a passing car, another dog coming the other direction, etc. The well trained Schnauzer is aware of all those things and is probably very interested in them as well, but it has the discipline to stay by his master’s side expectantly but quietly walking down the street. The other Schnauzer is constantly straining at the leash this direction and that, barking at the squirrel, yipping at the lady, aching to chase the car, lunging at the cat … all at the same time.

Will, Reason, and Emotion are like Schnauzers. Without careful and constant training, they strain and bark at every passing thing. Even our reason (something Westerners, and especially Scots — take Sherlock Holmes as an example — often try to pass off as naturally cold and calculating) creates a cacophonous racket running from this idea to that, enslaving us to thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts, thoughts (performance note: said like a barking Schnauzer), here and there and everywhere. Such noise and ceaseless activity lead to an inner life so frenetic (ie, the passions) that there is no space for the real God.

That was the first issue. The second is Evangelicalism’s conflation of “the Word” and “scripture” (and on this point theologians of the Orthodox Church frequently say the rationalist Evangelicals come very close to heresy). What do we mean by The Word? John 1:1 (and the Gospel according to John in general) is the most prominent place in scripture to start this consideration.

“In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As you no doubt know, the Greek term for “Word” (ho logos) is a rich term, not only meaning “word,” but also “reason” or “rationality” and “order” or “structure.” Creation has both an irreducible order (logos) and life principle (zoe) which comes from Word (logos) and Spirit (pneuma) who come forth from the Father. In Eastern Orthodox writings the Second Person of the Trinity is normally called the Word. He is certainly the Son, both ontologically and by means of the incarnation, and “Son” also emphasizes the living and relational character of the Second Person of the Trinity; but his designation as Word (ho logos) brings to light characteristics that are especially important in terms of this present discussion. In order to understand that importance, let us turn to the purpose of the Christian life.

As Christians our life goal is union with God. While this is ultimately the purpose of prayer, service (alms), and fellowship, it is most clearly experienced in the Divine Liturgy.  In the liturgy, the physical becomes the means (not just a metaphor, but the actual means) of our union. Icons are not merely pictures, they are “windows to heaven” through which we participate in the communion of the saints and can greet and visit with (or “pray to,” if you will) the Church Triumphant. The Liturgy itself becomes the vehicle for our participation in the Banquet of the Lamb. The water of baptism becomes the ablutions of the Life-Giving Spirit. The Word enters into our very being and becomes us through our orifices: our ears (through the singing, reading and proclamation of the scriptures), our eyes (the icons and the motion of the liturgy), and preeminently through our mouth (through the Eucharist where we eat and drink Christ himself).

These are not individual acts. They are whole cloth, where the Church comes together and is constituted, makes the journey to heaven in the liturgy, and enters into union with God through the sacramental actions which make up all the various and sundry activities we call the Divine Liturgy. Furthermore, it is possible that they can be whole cloth precisely because Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate (joining Creator and creation) and the Spirit is the vivifying Breath. All these actions become, in a sense, the embodiment of God that we take in and incorporate into our very being. We can call scripture “the Word of God” in a subordinate sense because it points to the Living Word, and, again, through the vivifying work of the Spirit acting on created stuff (the scriptures) truly becomes the Living Word who enters in and is incorporated into our very being.

In stark contrast, Evangelicals tend to reduce “Word” to scripture. Worship tends to become preparatory activities (songs, prayers, offering, announcements, passing of the peace, etc.) followed by “the really big show” — the sermon — with Protestant communion (what one of my irreverent Reformed professors called “the toast to Jesus”) either monthly or quarterly … rarely more often lest we make it too important and integral to worship.

To use another metaphor for union with Christ that Paul calls a mystery in his letters to the Corinthians, it is the difference between an evening of love making and fellowship culminating in sexual union, on the one hand, and, on the other, lecturing one’s wife (albeit a loving lecture) from across the country for 20 to 30 minutes over the phone.

As much as I love a quote or an excerpt from Michael Horton, The White Horse Inn always leaves me feeling lectured. (I suspect a Sunday morning spent with his congregation would make me feel similar.) I believe God’s not especially interested in that and thus calls us to the all-out sensuousness of Life in Christ as envisioned in historic Christianity.