Whenever we suffer in any way, “from men, from demons or from the body,” as St. Isaac puts it, we are tempted. And how we deal with that temptation makes all the difference. Do we turn to Christ or deny Christ (perhaps not so much with our words, but with our actions)? Do we continue to love others or begin to blame, accuse and condemn others. Do we thank God for all things, or do we grumble in our hearts? It is a temptation. Every difficult and painful circumstance in our lives is a temptation.
And because such suffering is a temptation to sin, it is also an opportunity to deny Christ. It is an opportunity to curse God or curse man made in the image of God. It is an opportunity to become lost in self pity and never-ending introspection. It is an opportunity to become engrossed in the immediate human or demonic or biological causes, and to ignore God almost completely, as though our suffering and difficult circumstance were happening behind God’s back.
The same difficult or painful circumstance becomes for us the means by which we either grow in Christ or in some way deny Him. And of course what is happening to us never makes any sense in the midst of the suffering. That’s part of the temptation. We don’t know why God is letting this happen. We don’t know what God is doing. It just doesn’t make sense. And at that point of confusion, that dark night of the body and soul, all we have left is naked trust, naked hope that God is still God despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain and confusion and injustice of the situation. Can we say with Job, “Even if He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”?
This is a lectionary reflection on this week’s Gospel lesson, Mt. 16:13-20, the story of Jesus giving Peter the keys to the kingdom, but once again I want to get at it through an icon. One of the popular icons in contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is the icon of the Embrace of Saints Peter and Paul. Putting these two apostles together goes back in church history as far as we can go. They are unique among the apostles in that they are commemorated together rather than individually. Their Feast is June 29, which is the culmination of the Apostles Fast, beginning immediately after Pentecost. That fast and feast is ancient, but this icon featuring an embrace is a recent development, first showing up in Crete in the 15th century.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has always seen Peter and Paul as inseparable. Peter was the Apostle to the Jews while Paul was the Apostle to the Greeks. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, the congregation that first accepted Paul as a Christian and then sent him out as a missionary. Many years later the Paul travelled to Rome and essentially gave that congregation apostolic approval. Shortly after, Peter became Rome’s bishop.
The Western church was initially (and has always remained) very Greek in its sensibilities, and this was Paul’s gift to the church – reframing a Jewish sect so that it made sense to the world of Greek culture. (This is the meaning of the phrase, “They were first called Christians in Antioch.” Prior to this the church was simply considered the Way of Jesus. It was essentially a sect of Judaism. That Greek word “Christian” marks the beginning of this reframing of Jesus’ teachings into another culture.)
It is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church is often called the church of St. Peter because Peter never did manage to embrace this reframing of Christianity that Paul oversaw and Rome represented. That was a Pauline thing. Peter was and is far more representative of the church along the Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem, Antioch to the north, Crete to the west and Alexandria to the south). These were and are churches that maintained a strongly Semitic outlook, and that was Peter’s thing.
But Peter is first among the apostles, it was to Peter that Jesus gave authority (Mt., 16:13-20). As the power of the Roman bishop grew and as Rome grew increasingly alienated from the rest of the church, it was politically necessary that Rome cement its connection with Peter even though their soul was far more Pauline.
It had been coming for centuries but the official break of the Roman bishop from the larger church occurred in 1054. Historically there was an inevitability to the break, especially after the imperial capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople. But no one was happy that the Roman Bishop had fallen out of fellowship with the Bishops (by this time called Patriarchs) of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople.
In the 1438 the fall of the imperial city of Constantinople was still in the future (that happened in 1453), but the demise of the Eastern Roman Empire was already obvious. There was an opportunity for rapprochement between east and west and this was addressed at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. The reconciliation failed, but out of that effort grew an idealized memory of the past.
Much of the Byzantine court (particularly, worship specialists, as well as the art, music, and documents) had been moved from Constantinople to Crete in order to save it from the inevitable sack of the city. It was in Crete (Constantinople in exile) during the period of the council that an iconographer named Angelos first painted the Embrace of Peter and Paul. It is almost certainly historically inaccurate, but it expressed the hopes of the future as well as the rosy memories of the past for much of the church in the 15th century.
In one sense this story has nothing to do with us because that moment, the possibility of reunion envisioned by Ferrara-Florence is no longer feasible without unimaginable changes. But this icon from this period has much to do with Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, if we but choose to see it. Matthew 16:13-20 is a touchstone of deep division, given that this text has been co-opted (in the Protestant and Orthodox view) by the Catholics to bolster their vison of a universal pope to rule them all.
The icon has an odd feature that makes it quite precisely our story. Peter and Paul may be embracing, but they’re not looking at each other, they are looking past each other. (I personally have a hard time seeing this, but both art experts and icon experts have commented on this, so I’m taking their word for it.) One wonders if Angelos, while expressing his hope for union in the embrace, didn’t also express his expectation of failure in his depiction of the eyes. While the embrace almost certainly never happened, the not seeing eye to eye certainly did. Peter and Paul never did fully reconcile and James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, finally separated them, sending Paul to evangelize out west and (from the silence of scripture, I assume) allowing Peter to stay put in the Jerusalem to Antioch corridor on the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
Looking back over history, I would argue that one of the strengths of the church is that east and west has never seen eye to eye. Those terrible Judaizers that ran around Asia Minor and Greece were almost certainly the everyday Christians of the eastern Mediterranean coast. That Judaizing debate was the disagreement between Peter and Paul writ large. Paul thought the central issue was works (and this is the side of the story that is recorded in Paul’s letters). The Eastern Christians thought the issue was how we go about incorporating the Gospel into our everyday lives (more reflective of James and the Petrine letters). When Peter and Paul (East and West) were in the same room they fought and misconstrued each other, but when given a degree of separation they tended to bring a balance to each other in the first millennium before the great split in 1054. That was the wisdom of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem and the effect of that first Jerusalem council.
Now there are three siblings (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) who can’t get along. Like Peter and Paul, even in their embrace, we’ll probably never see eye to eye, but we should at least be embracing each other. Behind our embrace is the profound wisdom of James who understood that the Gospel is simply too big for any one of us to grasp the whole thing.
NOTE: Because of an unexpectedly busy week (ah, the tyranny of the urgent but pointless!) I didn’t get this essay edited to post in a timely manner. Sunday’s Gospel lesson is at the center of one of my current fascinations, so I’m posting it anyway; better late than never.
I want to approach this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel lesson by way of a bizarre Eastern Orthodox icon that I just recently discovered when listening to this video by iconographer and medievalist Jonathan Pageau. He explains the icon in far more depth in this article in the Orthodox Arts Journal.
This is how St. Christopher was traditionally represented in Eastern Orthodox iconography. In the West, St. Christopher typically appears as a giant carrying a traveler on his shoulder. And not just any giant! He was said to be a “Cainite” (offspring of Cain) and Nephilim, the half angel, half human creature that was the primary cause of the flood, according the standard medieval interpretation of Genesis.
The reason he is shown with a dog’s head is that the Eastern tradition says he was a Canaanite. Canaanites were a particularly despised people group in the near east at the time of Jesus and the early church. And this brings us to this week’s Gospel lesson (Mt. 15:21-28), where a Canaanite woman pled with Jesus to heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. Jesus initially ignored her and called the Canaanites dogs (as everyone did). Eventually he did heal her, but the Gospel story leaves a sour taste in our modern mouths.
By today’s standards Jesus’ words would probably be considered hate speech. For the followers of Jesus, the scandal was not that Jesus referred to the Canaanites as dogs, but rather that he relented and delivered the woman’s daughter.
The Canaanite woman and Christopher, the Canaanite saint, are examples of how the Gospel reaches beyond the borderlands of culture into chaos. They are uncomfortable edge cases which punctuate our prejudices that often dehumanize the person who is completely other, whether it is a person of another culture or skin color or are different in other ways, such as deformities, deficiencies, or simply lack of good taste or proper politics.
But this is why Christopher has endured as an honored saint. Of course pure people (that is, us in our self-perception) can be Christ-bearers. We also affirm that foreigners can be Christ-bearers, because Jesus sent the apostles to spread the Gospel to the whole world. But the world is also populated by things that are simply “unnatural” and otherwise beyond. It’s too easy for us to see certain people and think that they are beyond redemption, like dogs.
Jesus could have done the correct thing and welcomed the Canaanite woman with open arms, but if he would have done that, an important lesson would have been missed. In order to emphasize the surprising inclusivity of the Gospel he began by emphasizing the exclusivity of polite society. He started with that which people required, and from there he moved to including the unnatural and unredeemable under the umbrella of the Gospel.
In the Western tradition, according to Pageau, Christopher never entered the nave of the church only coming in as far as the narthex. This is a very interesting bit of the story. The church has rules. In all except the most liberal of churches (which are most of the Protestant churches of today especially in America, but both worldwide and historically, this is an outlier) the Table is “fenced.” Not just anyone can receive communion because, to speak metaphorically, the Cup is like a raging flame, and if one is not prepared by God, the Cup might be experienced as judgment rather than an internal enlightenment.
The one who is recognized as a saint that isn’t fully a part of the Body of Christ (entering the church only as far as the narthex), embodies the self-imposed quandary we find ourselves in. Historically, with a handful of exceptions (modernity being one of them), the church has felt strongly that rules are required in order to be faithful to Christ. But as soon as we make rules we discover that the Gospel can extend beyond the rules. Rules always look backward while the Gospel looks forward and outward. Rules, while required, always end up being complicated.
The other problem, and this isn’t a quandary, this is just plain old wickedness hiding in the form of high sounding rules, is that we often want to exclude certain people, and even worse, certain classes of people just because they are our “Canaanites.” In Sioux City it tends to be Native Americans, in South Sioux City it might be Hispanics or refugee immigrants. Elsewhere it more likely to be blacks, while in a small town thirty miles from where I taught high school, it was whites. When I was in college it was Democrats; in seminary it was Republicans (and that was over thirty years ago … it is far worse now).
Those whom God recognizes as saints might appear to us to be dog-headed men, just as in the icon. In the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church disallowed icons including any dog-headed men. I suspect that decision had to do with the werewolf traditions throughout that region. Today such icons are nearly impossible to find simply because we fancy ourselves too polite, and such an icon seems utterly gauche. (It’s the same reason we shrink from today’s Gospel lesson.) This is a pity. Having holy objects that included dog-headed men, and especially beloved St. Christopher, presented as a dog-headed man, would be a constant reminder that for us the Gospel rarely includes everyone. Each and every one of us have someone that we would rather remain in the narthex. Each and every church communion has someone who doesn’t fit their standards of life-style or belief. And those dogs?
Far away from us, hanging around with St. Christopher at the very margins warming their hands on the divine glory.
This week we have watched, and possibly participated in, one mob seeking to defend what they euphemistically call their way of life, and a second mob seeking to destroy and banish the first mob. The white supremacists are certainly contemptible both because of their willingness to act on their prejudices and the violent way in which they do it. But mobs in general are contemptible.
I find them contemptible because mobs are reduced to their animal natures. Once a person gets swept up into the mob (whether it’s a legal march in a city park and the quasi-legal other night marches with torches intentionally designed to terrorize and intimidate or an online response via social media which reduces everything to either/or and black and white, the person begins to lose their sense of self and is reduced to their animal instincts, or what Maximus the Confessor called “the unnatural passions.”
What is a passion? Maximus says
- Passions are impulses that move us to action by overcoming our will. Because of this these passions enslave us.
- Passions are powerful because they cannot be satisfied. (This is because the root impulse that drives the passions is the desire to be one with God, but the effect of sin is that this drive misses the mark and gets attached to things that are not God. This might be recognizably bad things, such as a desire to be recognized and the center of attention, or seemingly good things, such as the desire for social justice. The inability to find satisfaction is at the heart of mob mentality.)
- Passions are forces that go against what we know to be the proper action and lead us to actions which are counter to the commandments of Christ. But passions also have the ability to self-justify, so often in the moment, we believe we are doing the right thing. It is only with some emotional space that we can step back and recognize that the actions are improper.
- Passions are also distinguished by “natural passions,” such as hunger, fear, and sadness, and “unnatural passions,” which are the unhinged natural passions that lose focus, miss their mark, or even get captured in a mob spirit. The desire to stop bigotry and hatred, for instance, when seized upon by a mob and by our animal instincts of fight or flight, quickly expresses itself in hatred and generalizations – everyone marching in defense of a Gen. Lee statue is, in this particular generalization, a racist and/or white supremacist.
Fortunately there have been a great number of people who have managed to avoid getting caught up in either mob and have recognized that these generalizations are both false and dangerous. My purpose here is not to enumerate the falsehoods or the dangers of the two mobs because others (and here I think particularly of Jemar Tisby and others with his wisdom and local experience) have done this far better than I could, living the insulated life I live in the Midwest. Rather, my purpose is to put the Charlottesville affair into the context of what the church fathers consider the fundamental battle of our salvation.
We can become enslaved by evil by embracing evil. We can also become enslaved by evil when fighting evil. This is not to say we shouldn’t fight evil (although St. Porphyrios did say just that as I’ve mentioned here, here, and here), but when we do battle we must be ever vigilant of both the outward physical battle (in this case, racism) and the internal spiritual battle against the unnatural passions that an outward battle can always stir up.
I will conclude by proposing that the greatest weapon we have against tyranny and evil is joy. (Remember the 1997 movie Life is Beautiful?) When we are joyful, the unnatural passions have great difficulty in finding root in our hearts. Joy also tends to unmask the pretense of the enemy. (Go look at the work of Rachel Fulton Brown for profound analysis on this point.) Finally, true joy chases away the anger and replaces it with sorrow. I doubt there can be true joy that is not coupled with deep sorrow. When that happens we can recognize that the supremacists are not the masters, but slaves of their passions. When we recognize that we can authentically pray for them even as we struggle against their tyranny.
Big fan of Jonathan Pageau, the Quebecois iconographer and intellectual. He’s the guy, by the way, who introduced me to Jordan B. Peterson, for better or worse. Even if you, like me, kinda hate to have to sit down and watch a video (or t.v. or movie) and would rather read or listen, this lecture by Pageau, which is, far as I can tell, is only on YouTube, is well worth the the effort. In my theology professor’s words, it’s an RBD (Read Before you Die).
I mention it on my blog because it fits rather nicely with themes that I was playing with in the previous two essays, especially the idea of the necessity of being welcoming in a context that makes us uncomfortable.
After writing the post, Gender Identity and the Passions, last week I ran across some notes that I had taken from a 2015 podcast back in 2015 by Fr Stephen Freeman that I can’t find in the “Glory to God” podcast feed. His essay illustrates why it is so difficult for Christians to speak in a Christian manner on these issues to people who do not have a Christian context or Christian assumptions.
He begins with the affirmation that we are created in the image of God, but then clarifies that broad statement. “The image we are created in is the crucified Christ (that is Christ, Lamb of God who was slain from eternity according to Revelation). Along with being the crucified Christ, he is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24). He also emphasizes the fact that this process of being in the divine image is not yet finished. It is “the image in which we were created and toward which we are being conformed.”
In order to understand sexuality (and given our assumptions today, I should clarify that I am not talking about the sex act but rather our sexuality as male and female – two related but very different things) we have to begin with the movement of the Trinity who continually self-empty into each other. “Therefore,” Freeman says, “we must understand ourselves as self-emptying male and self-emptying female.”
What we see in this world is a distortion of this self-emptying mode. All discussions of our gendered existence (and Christians must remember that in all our discussions) male and female are eschatological images. That is, they are images towards which we are moving, not givens by which we automatically live. The male who is not self-emptyingly male is not yet what he shall be or what he should be, the female who is not self-emptyingly female is not yet what she shall be nor what she should be.
For some the experience of the energies of our nature is changed whether through the brokenness of genetics or the brokenness of nurture as we experience it in this world and they are not yet what they shall be nor what they should be. We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.
The sacrament of marriage must be seen in this same eschatological manner. Sacraments do not merely bless things as they are but transform them in a dynamic manner towards what they should be. In the case of the Eucharist this transformation is complete. But in those sacraments that involve the freedom of persons, the transformation can only be seen in a dynamic manner. Man and woman are blessed towards what they should be.
The heart of marriage is self-emptying love towards the purpose of union and the procreation of children. It does not exist for the self-fulfillment of our tragic existence. Marriage is not legalized sex nor mere companionship. Rather it is towards and end which is just now being made present. And like every other form of Christian living, marriage is marked by askesis and thanksgiving. The passions are as much a part of marriage as they are for the single state. The proper Christian position before all of this should be humility. The world is not divided into good guys and bad guys, the world shares a common struggle towards the truth of our existence. That truth is revealed to us in the Gospel of Christ and the fullness of its story. I’ve written elsewhere that “kenosis is theosis,” that “self-empyting is divinization.” [Note: askesis means “discipline” or “exercise,” kenosis means “self-empyting,” and theosis means “divinization.” the word the fathers and the Orthodox Church use to refer to becoming one with Christ.]
I am perfectly aware that Fr Stephen’s analysis would be generally be classified as hate speech in contemporary society because he does not make room for sexual self-identification. But a more careful reading shows there is nothing hateful about it. He laments, “We share a tragedy that is common to all humanity.” One cannot speak in a Christian manner without speaking of being “self-emptyingly male” and “self-emptyingly female.” But this is a foreign language today, even for Christians. And because it is so foreign, it offends our sensibilities.
The special difficulty is that this talk of self-emptying is not an appropriate starting point in a conversation with the larger society. Instead we need to live in fellowship with people in society. It’s not so much that we need to invite others in to our fellowship, but rather that we need to go out and be with them. This is precisely why Jesus was condemned. He was the Holy One who ate with sinners and tax collectors instead of staying within his presumed community of religious leaders and the synagogue faithful.
Jesus invited all those who were burdened to sup with him. That is the stating point of the Gospel. The disciplines of Christian faith (ie, self-emptying) are not the Gospel, they become the grateful response of those who have ate with Jesus Christ and discovered the reality of the loving and inviting God.
So there is a sense that my previous essay as well as Freeman’s description of the proper life lived as male and female is not useful in cultural arguments about marriage, divorce, LGBT rights, etc. It is true, but if we hammer on it without proper context, it is perceived as hate speech rather than love speech, as condemnation rather than Gospel. A proper life is not something we can force on people, it is rather something that we must exemplify and then invite people to.
In this sense, I have a great deal of sympathy for what Natasha Sistrunk Robinson said in defense of LGBT rights. (See the previous essay cited above.) This might be interpreted as waffling and backing down on my previous critique. It is not. My critique had to do with the uncritical acceptance of cultural assumptions. Rather this is a statement that as Christians we need to be crystal clear in our understanding that we are fundamentally eschatological creatures who are not yet what will be or can be. As Christians we cannot stand against the LGBT community, but must stand with them even as we live out and speak out the glories of the loving and inviting God, and demonstrate the joys and benefits of gratefully responding to God by being self-empytingly male and female.
The office manager at work is a member of a Bible Church (the same tradition in which I grew up). This week I discovered that her aunt married a Syrian Orthodox man and she was in fact one of the pillars of St. Thomas, where I was chrismated 12 or 13 years ago. The office manager said she had been to a number of weddings and funerals at St. Thomas.
Knowing the scruples of the tradition in which I grew up, at this point I expected the conversation to go south fast. Over the years I’ve had that, “Oh, you’re Orthodox? You realize you’ve joined forces with the Antichrist” conversation with a few people who were part of the Bible Church in Montana. I was waiting for the inevitable silent condemnation from the office manager.
Instead she said, “I especially love funerals at St. Thomas. Every time I walk into the auditorium (okay, granted we would never call the nave an auditorium, but I’ll overlook that) I feel like I’m walking right back into the Old Testament.” The icon wall that separates the sanctuary (what she would call the platform) from the nave is 10 to 12 feet tall. She said it felt like she was looking at the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple whenever she was in there.
Which is the point.
My old Bible Church tradition can be open and curious but it was too often closed and judgmental. It always makes me happy to run into people within that tradition who are open and curious. The ability to see something utterly foreign (and an Orthodox Church, chock full of icons, with chanting going on almost continually, and clouds of incense smoke rising from the altar, and several times through the service, as the deacon censes the people, rising from the nave itself, is about as foreign and antithetical as it is possible to get when compared to a Bible Church sanctuary with bare walls, a pulpit, and little else … The ability to see something utterly foreign and recognize what is happening and that it might indeed embody the presence of God is an attitude that all of us should learn to more fully embrace in this age of distrust and disagreement.
Saturday night’s first psalm selection in the Breviary was Psalm 121 (122). “They filled me with joy when they said, ‘We will go to the house of the Lord.’ Now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, built as a city, whole and self-contained: there the tribes have gone up, the tribes of the Lord – the witness of Israel, to praise the Lord’s name. …”
To see the new in the old … that is skill we must learn to read the Old Testament. To see the old in the new … that is the skill the office manager had when she entered the church with joy and recognized that this is where God dwells (ie, the temple).
I went to a funeral of the parent of an acquaintance this week. My acquaintance is that flavor of Baptist that is very knowledgeable about the Bible, can slip his faith or God’s blessing into every conversation almost without fail (ie, “witnessing”), and has a very specific and narrow meaning of being a Christian and what’s required to go to heaven. By his standards, his father did not make the cut, and so the funeral was a bitter-sweet event.
The funeral itself had a distinct emphasis on the need for repentance along with a large dose of “we don’t know the hour of our death.” There was urgency in the service (including a couple verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am”). Fortunately there were no direct aspersions cast on the deceased. Instead there was a focus on using our time wisely while still on earth. (That is, by implication, taking the time to accept Jesus as our Savior.)
I’ve been away from Fundamentalism for a long time, and as a result, it didn’t occur to me that all my talk about repentance in recent essays might be put into this conservative evangelical context by my readers. When it comes to how we understand repentance, context is everything.
Orthodoxy begins with a belief in a generous God. God is for us (the affirmation at the heart of Paul’s rhetorical question in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”). God is doing everything in his power to help us freely choose him. Orthodoxy moves from the foundation of a generous God to framework of joy. The eucharist is the joyful feast and every week we enter into the joy of God’s presence.
Repentance is also a very big deal. Our understanding of the human side of salvation is structured around repentance. But because Orthodoxy begins with a generous God and the framework is joy, repentance is often called “the joyful sorrow.” We are sorrowful for our own sin and willfulness; we are sorrowful for the corruption of the world, but it is a sorrow that set in the context of the endless joy of the kingdom. The sorrow comes because we know we’re missing out on the fullness of what might be because of our sin.
Fundamentalism begins, not with a generous God, but with a holy God. Furthermore, divine holiness is understood in a particular way. According to this tradition, holiness is such that it cannot abide the presence of that which is not holy. It is a holiness that seems fragile because it can be sullied by the presence of sin. God can have fellowship with humans only because our sin is hidden by Jesus Christ. When God looks on us, he does not see our transgressions, but only Christ’s holiness. This is why God can bear to be around us.
There is a great deal of joy within fundamentalism, but there is also a great deal of fear. Because everything starts and ends with this particular view of holiness, one must worry a great deal about unrighteousness. Judgment can never be too far away from unrighteousness because can’t bear to be in the presence of that unrighteousness.
It is hard to state how different this is from Orthodoxy. Fr. Sophrony was once asked if he believed that unbelievers would ultimately go to hell. His startling answer was, “I don’t know, but what I do know is that if anyone is in hell, Jesus Christ is with them.
Orthodoxy also has a very strong emphasis on the holiness of God. I would argue that it has a far deeper sense of divine holiness than fundamentalism. But God’s holiness is not fragile as it is conceived in fundamentalism. It is a holiness that gladly veils itself so that it can be in the company of sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course Jesus, who embodied this sort of holiness, got into a lot trouble with the religious establishment (who had a view of holiness not unlike my friend’s view).
In this traditional view, holiness is frequently compared to fire. Fire doesn’t mind being in the presence of wood, it is wood that has a problem with being in the presence of fire because the fire will consume the wood. Repentance is the process of getting rid of the wood so that only the precious metal remains. Judgment does not destroy me, it only destroys the wood. But if I am in love with wood of my life, if I confuse the wood for the precious metal, when I enter into God’s presence it feels like I am being destroyed. Judgment is strictly a purification.
And this brings me back to the funeral, and funerals in general. I did not know the deceased and so I have no sense of who he was as a person. I do believe in hell, but my conception of it has changed dramatically from my fundamentalist days. I do not believe God sends anyone to hell. Those who go there do it by their own choice; they prefer the wood over the precious metal. Being absorbed by self and antagonistic to God, they would prefer an eternity in misery, holding on to the eternally burning wood of their false being.
Quite frankly, I have little sense of any other person’s eternal destiny. Some of the most wonderful people I have known have turned out to be truly terrible people. “Holy fools” are famous for being obnoxious people who are actually holy underneath the scabs of their humanity. The funeral is not, or at least should not be, a celebration of a person’s eternal destiny. It is, rather a celebration of Jesus Christ who is the Life of the World, the One who trampled Death by death and led the captives from the grave, the eternal Flame of God who burns away the wood of our false being so that all that remains is the precious metal of what God created and intended in the first place.
There is a “Where’s Waldo” sensibility to a proper funeral. Funerals are at the same time terrible and joyous. They are terrible because a dead person is laying there in our midst. They are terrible because funerals are inevitably a reminder of just how disastrous the corruption of the world truly is. But in the midst of this is the joy of Christ. Those who have eyes to see can find the life-giving Christ in any situation, even death. Funerals are an exercise in finding and focusing on the giver of Life and Light in the midst of death and despair. Whether the dead guy is a holy monk or a backslidden Methodist, the funeral is the same. It doesn’t revolve around the dead person; it revolves around Jesus Christ.
If I were in my friend’s shoes, how would I think about this guy in the coffin who apparently never repented. That’s not my problem. Every moment I am focused on someone else’s repentance is a moment I am ignoring my own repentance. This doesn’t mean that we should not spur each other toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But after death, it is actually a holy discipline to focus on the reality that God is a generous God. All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). Tallying up the sins and lack of repentance of the dead guy in the casket is in truth a subtle way of avoiding the state of our own soul, or comparing my seeming goodness to the other person’s seeming badness (instead of God’s goodness) and thus coming out looking good.
God is generous and good. The kingdom is preeminently a place of joy. Don’t let anyone, even your loved ones, steal that reality from you. Even in the darkest moment, the good God, living, loving fire of Christ’s presence can be found for those with the eyes to see it. Amen.
I am currently reading the textbook Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Univ. of Toronto. Peterson has recently become infamous for his opposition to bill C-16 (a Canadian Parliamentary Bill proposing full civil liberties to trans-gendered persons that has several scary side-effects). My own acquaintance with his work was through the Orthodox Church and the seeming infatuation many Canadian Orthodox thinkers have with Peterson’s ideas.
I worked my way through the 2017 version of his “Maps of Meaning” classroom lectures, available on YouTube. That was a 30 hour slog that made me wish I was in university again. The lectures piqued my interest; the textbook made it abundantly clear why the Orthodox are so enthralled with his work.
It is now expected and a bit trite to blame many of our problems on the Enlightenment. I’ve been on that bandwagon for 25 years or longer since I read Colin Gunton. But other than recommending the Protestant theologian Karl Barth and the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, as well as the Eastern Orthodox divine liturgy, I’ve had little to work with beyond repeating the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things” trope.
I’ve known since my college days that the Enlightenment was and is fundamentally reductionist, and thus leaves us incapable of adequately discerning reality and the truth. Peterson has given me a glimpse into just what got left out of the Enlightenment equation:
(Yeah, really! That’s the part that got left out.)
In popular usage “myth” means it’s a story that’s not factual, and thus not really true. To say, for instance, that Adam and Eve are a myth (as Samuel Johnson did back in the 18th century) was and is considered heresy by “Bible believing” Christians. We all “know” that there are facts and there are myths and facts lead to truth and myths don’t. Of course the students of myth (the aforementioned Johnson, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, to name a few) say that this bifurcation of myth and fact misses the point.
And the well informed “Bible believing” Christian might sniff, “Well, maybe it does miss the point, but that doesn’t change the fact that Adam and Eve aren’t a myth!”
What’s interesting about this deep divide between what is often construed as conservative and liberal Christianity is a recent phenomenon. The early church didn’t struggle with this “problem” because they didn’t notice a problem. The divide exists because both parties (liberal and conservative Christianity) have accepted certain key presuppositions of the Enlightenment and none of us (including me) can figure out how to move beyond these presuppositions.
This is where I found Jordan Peterson to be quite helpful. He reframes the issue in a manner that helps me (and obviously a number of other people, given his hearty reception among the Canadian Orthodox) to step beyond the Enlightenment problem of reducing reality to too small a box. Furthermore, he does it in a constructive manner. Post-modernists, and deconstructionists of all stripes, have done a good job of stepping beyond the Enlightenment by criticizing it; but beyond that they have nothing positive to say. Like me, once they deconstruct the Enlightenment, they have no path forward, just the old trope, the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things”
Peterson’s solution (and it’s not his invention – he says he’s adding the neurobiological and neuropsychological pieces to an argument already made by others before him) is not only to expand the frame of reference, but move its focus altogether. Critics of the Enlightenment have universally said the Enlightenment was reductionist. Peterson goes much farther by saying that fundamental truth does not revolve around object, but around meaning. “Objective truth” is actually a second-order truth that is extracted from the more fundamental “significance” (an idea closely related to “meaning”). Significance is what allows us to prioritize and organize objective truth. (See Maps of Meaning, ch. 1, “Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning.”)
To return to a possibly overused analogy (but an analogy that is used so frequently precisely because it is so applicable), Peterson is offering a “Copernican Revolution” as a solution to the Enlightenment predicament. Just as the Earth was not the center of our sky, but rather the Sun (or the center of the galaxy, etc.), so objects are not the center of truth, but rather meaning. Objects come forward out of the chaotic mass of atoms and molecules and energy and light to reveal themselves as objects not because they are inherently objects but because they mean something to us and thus reveal themselves as objects.
Mapping objects is a relatively simple task. At least it was relatively simple from a Newtonian framework. Objects fit into a “time-space continuum.” (Of course the mapping of objects gets a bit weird at the quantum level.) Mapping meaning is far more difficult, and yet it is something that we instinctually know and do. The process of mapping meaning is the dilemma that I am quite fond of which can be described (in Michael Polanyi’s turn of phrase) as, “We know far more than we can say.”
So how do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought? I’m already at 850 words, so I’ll save that question for the next essay.
From Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. Setting: Ivan is in an insane asylum because of a misdiagnosis (in his opinion); he saw the transcendent world. There are bars on the windows, but another patient has just entered Ivan’s room by unlocking the bars and opening the window. They are now talking:
“But if you can go out onto the balcony, you can get out of here. Or is it too high up?” queried Ivan.
“No,” was the guest’s firm reply, “It’s not because it’s too high that I can’t get out, but because there’s nowhere for me to get out to.” After a pause he added, “So, we’re stuck sitting here?”
“Yes, stuck,” replied Ivan, gazing into the new-comer’s anxious-looking brown eyes.
Ah … but isn’t that the plight of humanity! Nowhere for me to get out to.
Note: If this doesn’t make a lot of sense, the novel is a critique of Russian atheist culture.