God, Salvation, and Word Pictures

Reading the Daily Common Lectionary, which is going through Hebrews at the moment, I am reminded that there are different metaphors for salvation, and those metaphors are not necessarily compatible with each other. If the metaphors are taken too literally or too far it will appear that there are contradictions within scripture. The four big salvation metaphors are slavery and freedom (based on Israel’s escape out of Egypt), the temple and the sacrificial system (based on the Law given to Moses after the escape from Egypt), the banquet and the invitation of unworthy people to the banquet (one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, at least according to John), and the legal system (Paul’s favorite metaphor).

God is unknowable to us in a manner similar that human culture and pathos is unknowable to an ant. But God takes things that are within our experience and that we can understand (systems of sacrifice, big banquets, the court system, jails, and fines, etc.) and says, “I am like this,” or “The reasons for my actions are similar to this.” But I suspect we forget that God’s relation to us is ultimately beyond our understanding and that the only way to get a handle on God’s actions is to speak of it in metaphorical terms. Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet hall where we will eat forever and ever, but it is a helpful image that offers a counterpoint to our getting kicked out of the Garden where food was both easy and always available.

Growing out of the idea of metaphor or analogy is a second principle in talking about God called apophatic language. The essence of apophatic thinking is to say what God is not, rather than what God is. A simple and hopefully obvious example, since we began with my reading of Hebrews and the metaphor of the sacrificial system is to start with a metaphorical statement, “Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God,” and then add an apophatic clarification, “But Jesus is not a lamb,” or “Jesus had skin, not wool.” Or, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, “Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet.” That’s an apophatic clarification.

Once we understand metaphorical language, then we begin to realize that the whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a gigantic metaphor about God and humans. Even the ancient Jews understood this: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).

The origins of sacrifice have been lost beyond the time horizon. Granted, God “made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). This is often called the first sacrifice and is considered a pointer toward Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, but in truth that is speculation. The text actually says nothing about sacrifice. What we do know is that God used practices common to humans and then revealed glimpses of his true self by redefining those common practices and giving them new meaning.

Anthropology has shown us that sacrifice, for ancient cultures, was a way of appeasing and manipulating the gods who were either angry or non-cooperative. It was an attempt to gain some small amount of control in a capricious and dangerous natural world. Some of that same sensibility is present in the Old Testament system. Appeasement is certainly a big part and is at the root of the theological arc that we might call the “wrath of God.”

Going back to our original exploration of analogic and apophatic theology, the question of divine wrath must be explored. Is wrath actually a divine attribute, a dark side to the attribute of holiness? Or is divine wrath actually a metaphorical description of the distance between Almighty God and his human creatures? And if that’s the case, must we put wrath into the context of other things God has revealed about himself and say, “God is not literally full of wrath (ie, an apophatic statement); making wrath an attribute takes the metaphor beyond its reasonable conclusion. Making wrath a metaphor (in contrast to an attribute) gives the distance between God and us a great deal of emotional punch.

No doubt it’s obvious by now that I fall into the camp that believes the idea of the wrath of God is a helpful metaphor, but metaphorical none the less. Not all interpreters take this same position. But I hope this essay helps us move beyond the idea that to reject divine wrath as an attribute of God is to somehow reject or deny scripture. It is rather an attempt to allow scripture to mean what it wants to mean rather than to force what we want scripture to mean on to the text.

A Story About How God Works

In the previous essay I talked about the incarnation being the pattern of all God’s activity in the world. God works in creation by working through the stuff of creation. Preeminently, God works through the Church. This reminds me of a saying about the monks. But in order to appreciate the saying, one must realize that eastern Christian monasticism is different than western monasticism. There are no monastic orders set apart to do specific tasks. Monks don’t teach school or pastor churches (unless they are released from their monastery to such a task). Monks pray; it is their specific vocation.

It is said that if the monks ever quit praying, the world will simply cease to exist. That sounds silly and arrogant on the surface, but the sentiment is rooted in this sensibility of the sacramental life and how God works in the world. The Church is a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5); it is the primary means of how God embodies himself in creation as he sustains creation and builds his kingdom. If the monks quit praying (implying that the church itself has quit praying and thus quit being open to God) God has lost his sacramental link to creation, and poof, creation is no more.

Okay, it still sounds a bit silly and arrogant, but the story gets to the heart of how the Christian east understands the relationship between God and humans. God mysteriously enters into the created order so that the Church truly and actually becomes the Body of Christ. (It’s not a metaphor.) So too with creation. “In him all things were created” (Col 1:15) and “In him all things hold together” (v 17). God imbues creation, yet we will not find him if we go poking around the stars or the subatomic particles looking for him. His presence is humble and yet powerful, invisible and yet glorious.

The secret divine action throughout the created order holds it all together and moves it all forward. It is this action that is the essence of our calling and salvation as well as that which leads to the consummation of all things. The Church, the Kingdom of God, the Lamb of God, and the Divine Light are all different manifestation of Grace, the true Grace of God that is God himself expressed in creation. There is no “lending a hand” in this process, nor is there Divine coercion; rather, this is God how God works. “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 15:17).

Our Role (and lack of it) in the Kingdom of God

Here’s an exercise in presuppositions. I have been reading the book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. On the chapter about the Kingdom of God, they ask whether there is a human role in God’s work of establishing the Kingdom.

Of course no one argues that we Christians are tasked with building the new heavens and the new earth from bottom to top. That would be as impossible as it is ridiculous. But there are a number of people who have argued that we as Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth – that we partner with God in his mission to restore the cosmos. As energizing as that may sound, though, it simply doesn’t ring true with the way the Bible talks about the new heavens and new earth. There’s the clear testimony of the passages we’ve just considered, but there’s also the fact that the land in which God’s people dwell – whether the Promised Land or the new earth – is always said to be a gift from God to his people. [p. 205]

This paragraph caught me by surprise. I had just read “the clear testimony” of a dozen passages and they did not strike me as excluding humans. (Ah! Presuppositions!!) Furthermore, the dismissive and offensive idea that anyone can “have a hand in the creation,” initially struck me as merely a terrible caricature of those they disagreed with. But eventually I realized that this manner of viewing “cooperation” lies at the heart of so many disagreements between East and West. We have different presuppositions. It’s not just a “kingdom of God” issue, it’s how everything God touches is thought about.

The Eastern Church thinks of all of God’s relationships with all aspects of the created order in an incarnational manner. The idea of God being outside the universe and coming into the universe to manipulate it (as in the images of judgment common in the western church, for instance) is largely foreign to the Orthodox mind. But first a caveat. When I speak of thinking in “an incarnational manner,” I mean the paradigm for God’s involvement in the universe is specifically the incarnation of the Son. The Jewish hope for the Messiah might be summarized by Isa. 64:1, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence …” (ESV). That expectation was met in a completely unexpected manner. Rather than a conquering hero breaking in from the outside, God entered the world in fully human form, entering creation in an “inside out” manner. Thus God’s strength appeared to be weakness, and his glory appeared to be hidden.

In the Orthodox mind, this is not merely the mystery of Christmas, this is simply how God works. Divine action takes on human (or material) form and operates from the inside outward. Rather than calling this incarnational thinking – because that might imply for some people that God’s work in the Chosen People of Israel, in the Church, and in the Kingdom, is on par with the incarnation of the Son of God – it is probably better to call this sacramental thinking. A divine act is always clothed in an earthly form just as in the sacrament the Bread is the heavenly Body of Christ, although it most certainly remains bread.

So DeYoung and Gilbert are completely correct when they say that the Kingdom of God is purely [my word] “a gift from God to his people” [emph in original] but mistaken when they then conclude that this somehow excludes God’s people. The reason for their confusion is quite clear. They conceive cooperation between human and divine as meaning, “Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.” That image completely perverts sacramental thinking. We don’t “have a hand” in anything! Rather, we are the instruments of divine work in the world.

I “cooperate” only in the manner that Mary cooperated with God. All she did was open her being in willingness to God’s work: “I am the servant of the Lord.” She didn’t “give God a hand” by going out and getting pregnant (forgive me for being crass). She rather became the vessel of God’s work in the world, and thus became God’s hands and feet and mouth. To use the language of Paul, she became the Body of Christ in the world so that the Son of God might have a human body in order to fulfill his role as Christ.

God will act in his normal way, that is, through the stuff of creation, and pre-eminently through his willing human servants. In the meantime, as God’s servants we go about our life. We pray, we stay in fellowship with other Christians, and in that context of God and community we live in the world. The things we do as faithful Christians then become the building blocks of the Kingdom of Heaven, not because we’re trying to build the Kingdom (for that would by hubris) but simply because that’s how God works. From our human perspective the Kingdom is accidental, from the divine perspective, it is God’s gift to us.

I’m curious if any of you have read What is the Mission of the Church? It appears most of my readers are not Orthodox, so I’m also curious if you consider this incarnational way of thinking to be complete bollocks, or if you see a some sense in this view.

Some Words about Words for God

I was combing through my library looking for a mis-shelved book when I ran across a forgotten book. The anthology Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, edited by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., was published  in 1992 toward the end of the battle in several mainline churches to change or at least supplement the traditional Trinitarian language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with a variety of options, such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” etc. The eighteen authors slice and dice the proposals and lay out the classical Christian reason why God, who is revealed in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be renamed willy-nilly by us, and furthermore, why the gods of other religions are simply not the same God.

I am reminded of this book for two reasons. First, I got shouted at multiple times in a Google+ comment thread about an American public school using Arabic lettering to help teach calligraphy. The lettering in question happened to be a Muslim prayer. In the comments the woman in question was vitriolic in her claim that praying to Allah is evil because Allah is not the Christian God.

I decided to troll her.

I observed that the term “Allah” does not actually refer to the Muslim God but rather is the generic name for a god in Arabic. It is roughly equivalent to Eloha (singular of Elohim) in Hebrew. Just as, when praying to God (including the Trinitarian Christian God) in another language, one uses the word for “god” in that language. In Spanish pray to Dios, the Greeks pray to theos, the English speakers pray to God, and the Arabic speakers pray to Allah.

Her response was quick and vitriolic: Praying to Allah is a great sin!!!!

I continued to troll by telling her that we prayed to Allah in my church, although we spelled it Ullah when we transliterated it from Arabic. (This is completely true, by the way, when we occasionally sing hymns in Arabic. It is a Syrian Christian Orthodox Church, of the Antiochian Archdiocese, after all.) She responded by saying that I clearly wasn’t Christian, and inher church, which was a Southern Baptist Church, they never prayed to Allah. (Not surprising, since I doubt they have a large number of native Arabic speakers.)

Fast forward to this week when we find out that Wheaton College (Illinois) is in the process of firing Larycia Hawkins, Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, for saying that the Christian God and the Muslim God are one in the same.

By the standards of the Ecumenical Councils and also per the arguments of the book Speaking the Christian God, Larycia Hawkins is simply wrong. The God of Islam is not Trinitarian; Islam does not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human; Islam rejects the deity of the Holy Spirit. By Christian standards, the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are very different. Wheaton (Ill) is quite right to call her out on her mis-statement, based on their own statement of faith. (The matter of firing her for her beliefs is a rather different kettle of fish that I will not pursue in this essay.) (I also suspect that Wheaton College in Easton, Mass can’t even conceive of what the controversy is about. For you East Coasters, don’t get the two institutions confused.)

And so we have two very distinct issues. We can talk about and pray to the Christian God in any language, including Arabic. (Actually, I should say, “Including English,” because Christians have been praying to God in Arabic before the Anglo-Saxons invented the language we call English.) On the flip side, just because we use the word God, or Jesus, or Christ in our prayers does not necessarily mean we are praying the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The thing that differentiates the God of Christianity, and Islam, and Arianism, as well as the God of American civil religion, is not the specific words, but the content of what we mean and say when we use those specific words “God,” “Father,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Holy Spirit.”

It’s worth thinking about our own private prayer life. Who do we pray to? Do we speak only to Jesus? Or does our prayer life include the richness of the Holy Trinity in all its implications? I close with the Trisagion prayers of the Orthodox Church: Holy God (quddusun ullah), Holy Mighty (quddusun ul-qawwi), Holy Immortal One (quddusun alladi), have mercy on us (la yamut irhamna). (3x) O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and fills all things, treasury of good things and giver of life; come, and dwell in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.

On The Proper Day to Take Down a Christmas Tree

I know this is burning question (yeah, it’s a pun) for many of you. I now have an authoritative Orthodox answer. (And I know that’s exactly what you’ve all been looking for. ha!) That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! Smile

Growing up we went to the mountains (okay, hills … but they had pine trees on them) south of town on Friday after Thanksgiving and cut our tree. That thing stayed put until Epiphany: Thanksgiving until the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Fire hazard be damned! It’s not that we celebrated Epiphany. I grew up in a family that was highly suspicious of anything smelling of Roman Catholicism, but mom just loved the Christmas tree lights.

Of course, in many communities if you don’t have your old, dead tree out by the curb during the week between Christmas and New Years you’ll miss the tree pickup and have to dispose of it yourself. It’s all a bit of social engineering as community leaders try to avoid Christmas tree fires involving very dry trees wrapped with electrical cords.

In response, many Christians have been busy on social media insisting that the tree should stay up until Epiphany (Jan 6) which is the twelfth day of Christmas on the Roman Catholic calendar. But from a family systems standpoint, this is rather impractical, because the kids are back in school, and typically this means that mom gets stuck removing the decorations and taking down the tree all by herself.

But this year I have stumbled upon a solution that is community tree removal friendly, sympathetic to family dynamics, and liturgically correct … you just have to be Orthodox for a week or so. In the Orthodox Church the Christmas Feast is only seven days long. The Leavetaking of the Nativity Feast is Dec. 31. January 1, the eighth day after Nativity, is Name Day (or Circumcision), when Mary’s baby receives the name Jesus – not technically part of Christmas, but a feast in and of itself. We then move into the Theophany Cycle with what is called the “Forefeast of Theophany.”

So, if you really want to take your Christmas Tree down but have been cowed by your religious zealot friends who insist the tree must remain up until the end of Christmas, you can now be “holier than them” and inform them that they are liturgically misinformed. Christmas ends on Dec. 31 in the East. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

P.S. This scheme has the added benefit of making that ridiculous song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” totally irrelevant. You can now throw that out on the curb along with your old, dead tree.

P.P.S. Oh, and Happy Name Day! And since you’re Orthodox for a week, I certainly hope you served up a St. Basil’s Cake today.