Faith

I was reminded of Soren Kierkegaard’s famous and oft misunderstood phrase, “leap of faith,” when I heard an Orthodox acquaintance talking about faith. The generally accepted starting point for an Orthodox understanding of faith is that it is a mode of perception. This is often a problematic starting point for us Romance Language people because our typical starting point is influenced by the Latin word fidere, which primarily means “trust.” Let’s just set aside “trust” for a moment; we’ll circle back to it momentarily.

God is not physical, so when we say, “God spoke to me,” or “I know God dwells within me,” we must necessarily mean something different than what would typically be understood as the literal meaning of those statements. God cannot “literally” speak and so you must mean that metaphorically, says the critic. And yet, our communion with God is far more than metaphor, or it is not Christian.

Ah, but we moderns have tended to reduce the world to that which we can study with the scientific method broadly defined. The physical world is subject to scrutiny with the scientific method and that study has been amazingly fruitful, so it is understandable that many assume that the physical world is all there is.

And indeed it is if we limit ourselves to touch, taste, smell, sight, etc. But the fathers have argued that there is yet another seat of perception that is mostly overlooked because it has atrophied as a result of sin. This is the mysterious inner being that we might call the heart, or soul, or innermost self. It is capable of perceiving and communicating with reality that is not physical, but real all the same.

Since faith, as a mode of perception, is atrophied (a consequence of spiritual death) it takes specific and intentional effort to develop it and to recognize what it is that the heart is perceiving. This is, by the way, where the spiritual tradition of Orthodox Church excels, and why there is such a heavy emphasis on the monastic life – not that everyone should be a monastic, but rather that monasticism be wide spread enough that everyone can engage with its fruits.

Once we begin to learn to perceive this otherwise hidden reality with our hearts, all the other facets of faith come into focus. We can trust because we actually know God, and are not merely hoping that he’s listening. We can hope – not blind hope, but Christian hope – because we know the actual faithfulness of God. Actual revelation of the Living Word of God (the favored title of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, in Orthodoxy) to us occurs because we have an actual mode of perception to to receive such revelation.

This is the stuff that Kierkegaard intuited and tried to express in his writings. His context was Lutheran pietism, and that severely limited his language set. Pietism spoke of the warming of the heart, the personal (and arguably, the emotional) attachment to God. But without a thorough knowledge of faith as a mode of perception, Kierkegaard recognized that the movement was built on shifting sand.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard said,

When we objectively investigate the truth, we reflect objectively about the truth as an object to which we are related. We do not reflect upon the relationship, but upon the fact that it is the truth – the truth to which we are related.

This is where his language set falls short. He recognizes that truth is not experiential in the Lutheran pietistic sense, but it has an inevitable and necessary relationship to experience. Because the Truth is living, it is not merely an idea that we incorporate, it actually changes us. And because this entrance into a new sort of truth that is not rationalistic or empirical is an utterly foreign experience for those of us whose (and here I must fall back on Orthodox language) mode of perception for such this is utterly atrophied, the first step is, in a sense, a leap into the unknown.

But it is not that it is actually “unknown,” it is rather that it is unknown to our tried and true modes of perception, which we can categorize as empirical evidence. So the leap is not into something utterly unknown, but rather a leap into something that we know not how to know. As Mary said when Gabriel told her that she was pregnant with our Lord, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The leap of faith is really just a matter of acknowledging that which we know, but we cannot know through “normal” means. It is a matter  of saying, “yes.”

Long before Kierkegaard, Anselm figured out the same thing. He called it “faith seeking understanding” (an active form of faith as a mode of perception). His explorations of this phrase proved to be bedrock for those that understood that Kierkegaard was on to something (Barth, the Torrance brothers, Alasdair McGrath, etc.). As an aside, Anselm’s slim book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) is brilliant exposition of this theme. His expositions unquestionably led me to doubt the whole foundation of Protestant epistemology … the consequence of which was my eventual move into the Orthodox Church, which embraces precisely what Anselm was trying to say on this specific subject. (His theory of salvation was not nearly as insightful.) It is sad that nearly all my Orthodox brethren condemn him vociferously and viciously. They’re reading the wrong the parts of the book! … but I digress.

It’s one of those sublime places where east and west meet: Faith is best understood as a mode of perception. That is the starting point into this mysterious way of knowing, an acceptance of what is and an acknowledgement that we don’t instinctively know how to get there from here. I would argue that “leap of faith” is not a particularly good way to describe it, but it seems that this is the direction Kierkegaard was headed when he said it. It is certainly what Anselm had in mind a few centuries earlier. It is the heart of the Orthodox understanding of faith.

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Failures, Bad Habits, and Addictions: From Shameful Baggage to Holy Gifts

“Devoted to the Lord for destruction.” Now that’s an interesting phrase! and it’s in Joshua:

For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. (Jos 6:16b-18)

“Devoted to destruction” is how the NRSV translates haram or cherem (alt. transliterations of the Hebrew root hrm). It is the word used in the Old Testament when God commands the utter destruction of something, most commonly, Israel’s enemies as they were conquering the Promised Land. In the conservative Protestant tradition, which celebrates the wrath of God, and interprets it in a very modern, post-Freudian way to mean anger, or fury, or just generally being pissed, this Hebrew idea was proof positive that (as the 1970s bumper sticker read, managing to be simultaneously offensive and amusing) “Jesus is coming again … and this time he’s really mad!”

So,if that’s not the point, what do we do with the haram of Jericho? God told Joshua that “the city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” The NRSV insets that word “devoted” because haram has both a negative and positive usage. Positively, it refers to something that is set aside to the Lord. In order to make the parallel clear, the NRSV translates the positive use as “devoted to the Lord” or something similar.

The idea of the Hebrew term haram is that of a gift. But the receiver is not physically there to receive it, so the giver sets it aside to use it exclusively on behalf of the receiver. In the modern context things like the chalice and paten would be haram. It would be unthinkable to use them for coke and pizza at a Saturday night dance. They are “set aside” for a specific liturgical use. Thus the word “holy” (qadosh), while not etymologically related to haram, is quite similar in usage. The chalice and paten are qadosh (holy: what they represent metaphysically) and therefore they are haram (set apart: what we do with them physically).

But haram also has a negative sense. And to help us understand the negative sense we should consider the Hebrew sacrificial system. Certain things brought to the altar were haram and were given to God completely as true sacrifices. This “giving to God completely” was done by burning the whole sacrifice on the altar. Other gifts were “offerings” rather than “sacrifices.” A symbolic portion of the offerings were burned on the altar, but most of it was reserved for the priests’ and Levites’ use (analogous to clergy salary and building upkeep today).

God told Joshua that Jericho would be haram, and therefore destroyed completely. It was not an offering, it was a sacrifice given to God. This is the negative sense of haram.  Furthermore, those who tried to rebuild it – to bring it back “from the ashes” to use the imagery of the altar – would be cursed because Jericho was haram.

Let’s acknowledge that the story is deeply disturbing to modern sensibilities. If we treat it as a war story and apply contemporary rules of war, it’s a shocking scene where noncombatants are slaughtered and where there is no sense of proportionality. Put into the larger context of the conquest and haram of Palestine, we’re also dealing with intended genocide. But the story is thousands of years old and  moral superiority and the resulting condemnation based on a few thousand years of hindsight puts us into a sort of “mote and beam” quagmire from which we’ll never extricate ourselves, due our self-congratulatory modern moral superiority, so the Church has wisely bracketed the historical events as beyond full comprehension and focused on a christological/allegorical reading.

The Orthodox don’t worry so much about the literal/historical arc of the Old Testament. It’s not that it’s unimportant (for it is the necessary strong foundation for an Orthodox reading of scripture) or dismissed as faintly ridiculous (as in a liberal Protestant reading); it’s rather that the best way to mine the spiritual depths of the Old Testament is to read it christologically (Athanasius, et. al.) and thus allegorically, as Paul teaches us to read the Old Testament in his epistles. The literal historical reading may develop one’s intellect but does little for one’s spiritual development. The Christological/allegorical method, on the other hand, is all about Christian transformation.

So, how does this text apply to us today allegorically? One of the great difficulties in spiritual growth is what to do about the bad stuff. We want to give God our very best, but we are beset by failures, bad habits, and on occasion, even addictions. These can be shameful things and we tend to hide them from God. We may also worry that God will be angry or even judge us because we can’t get our act together.

So we need to change the model. We need to take seriously God’s charge to the Israelites: The Promised Land is haram. The gold, silver, and bronze are to be devoted to the Lord (positive haram). The rest is to be devoted to the Lord for destruction (negative haram). And thus our failures, habits, and even our addictions can be “gifts” from us that are devoted to God. If we understand that these sins are not primarily something to be ashamed of, but rather human corruption that are to be devoted to the Lord for destruction, then they can even become, in a sense, “holy” gifts. They are not holy in and of themselves, but the attitude with which we offer them to God, through confession, is indeed holy.

I suppose this is precisely one of the points of confession in the Orthodox tradition. Confession is not about admitting shameful secrets and groveling for absolution, it is rather coming to understand the human condition and devoting it to the Lord so that our very beings can be transformed from the ashes. And this is why we can enter boldly into God’s presence (Heb 19:10). We are not bound for destruction. We have things that need to be utterly destroyed or banished, but they are not weights dragging us down to the pit, they are haram that we can give to God, “devote to God for destruction.” Even our worst can be transformed into the best for God. Thanks be to him. Amen.

A Troublesome Text

Today’s epistle in the daily lectionary is one of those texts that has become truly difficult:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive it’s approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. (Rom. 13:1,3)

I know that if I were black and living in America, I would have a beef with Paul. So what are we to make of this text? My native instinct is to explain it away, but I choose not to do that.

Instead, I offer up a completely different reaction to society most recently described in the movie Captain Fantastic, which opens this weekend. It features a family that cut itself off from an evil and unjust world (and what happens when they re-engage with it). Following in the footsteps of stories like Swiss Family Robinson, and philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is yet one more exploration of the supposed innocent and natural life unencumbered by the burdensome order of society. In actual fact, Rousseau’s vision is more frequently worked out along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but that is a different essay.

Rousseau’s vision offers us a dismal view of the potentials of corporate society. Modern society has no redemptive value and the better choice is to flee.

Paul’s vision, in contrast, is an optimistic view of how society can work. In his view, society is redemptive because it offers the order and structure that makes working out our salvation possible in a group context. (And a reminder: salvation is not and, in the end, cannot be individualistic. We are incorporated into the Body of Christ and Christ as head of that corporate Body transforms creation through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and the priestly efforts of his Body.)

When things get as dismal as they seem to have gotten, it is tempting to take the Rousseau option and opt out. But that rarely – if ever – works in the long run. And Paul reminds us that there is indeed a fundamental order in the society that exists. As bad as it gets, eventually – and it will happen sooner if we all stay engaged – norms of authentic law and order return.

That doesn’t make the current bleakness (whether that is the American context of violence against blacks and Native Americans, or the Middle East context of utter societal breakdown or the European context of unexpected and absurd violence against the bystanders) any easier to withstand, but it puts it into proper context.

“Pay to all what is due to them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (v. 7). When we go through life in that manner, we may suffer, be tortured, and killed. But at least we’ll live and live abundantly.