Rising Up and Going Down

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because the Muslim call to prayer is a relatively common image on our media screens. But this is how Middle Easterners prayed (Jews, Christians, and later, when Islam came about, Muslims), and it is part of Orthodox prayer to this day.

There are certain seasons that the Orthodox neither prostrate themselves nor kneel (the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost), and there are seasons (all the fasts) and particular feasts (Exaltation of the Cross, etc.) where full prostrations are the normal posture of prayer. Humans cannot easily separate mind, body, and will; we cannot easily humble our heart without humbling our body. The humility of full prostrations and conversely the confidence that comes from divine grace associated with standing while praying are both a normal part of the Orthodox posture of prayer.

I don’t think Archimandrite Zacharias ever talks about the posture of praying (whether standing, kneeling, or prostrate) in his book The Enlargement of the Heart, but I was reminded of prayer’s posture while reading the book. Zacharias is fond of the phrase “go down,” referring to the journey we are called to make, going down to hell with Christ where he announced his victory over sin and death. Going down to hell sounds harsh, but we Christians have become so accustomed to the traditional language of death leading to life that this turn of phrase helps us think about what the New Testament describes.

Zacharias, following and extending the thinking of both his teacher, Elder Sophrony (d. 1995), and Sophrony’s teacher, St. Silouan (d. 1938), says that one of the prominent features of the Christian church today is despondency. What is despondency or despond? If you’re like me, you might associate it with Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond.” If you are even more like me, you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress but guess that it means that Pilgrim was having a tough time of it. But despond has a more proper meaning than just that. Despond is a lack of concern about one’s salvation.

There is a doctrine widely held in America—the full assurance of salvation—that was originally taught by the Reformers to free Christians from debilitating fear so that they could confidently grow in Christ and be transformed. Ironically, given the modern zeitgeist in contrast to the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe, this very doctrine promotes despond. Once the cycle of despond begins, a blind trust in divine grace and assurance that everything will turn out okay tends toward a lax attitude toward growth and transformation—the very essence of despond.

It’s cliché to say that this is an age of unbelief. Talk to any honest pastor and you will hear stories of rampant unbelief among laity and clergy alike. These are people who like the idea of God and would like to believe, but just can’t do it. The heavens, having become brass, the spiritual world seems utterly cut off from them.

Zacharias argues that this is a symptom and not a root problem. Unbelief such as this, within the church, is a symptom of despond. When we aren’t faithful with a few things, we lose control over the large things, to paraphrase Mt. 25:23. The solution isn’t to try harder to believe, nor is it to just go through the motions hoping belief will come, it is to go through specific motions. Zacharias says the only path forward is to humble ourselves. This is why he is so fond of that phrase “go down.” Humility is going down below others and going down before God in prayer. Extreme humility is going down to hell with Christ.

The Apostle Paul proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ!” (Gal. 2:20). What happened after the crucifixion? 1 Peter says that after his crucifixion, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison …” This obscure and otherwise incomprehensible phrase has been linked to Eph. 4:8 (Christ “made captivity itself captive”). What then becomes clear is that Christ didn’t just die, in death he went and entered into solidarity with the very lowest low that humans captive by sin and death could possibly go: hell. It is here, in this lowest of low places and most hopeless of hopeless states that Jesus announced his victory over death.

Zacharias’ argument is that it is not enough to confess that we have been crucified with Christ, we need to actually do something. We need to travel with the crucified Christ and embrace our lowest and most humiliating low: the ignominy of sin that has captivated us. And only when we humble ourselves to that level can we truly hear and embrace the proclamation of Christ’s victory.

But “humbling ourselves” has become a hackneyed commonplace. (“I am so humbled to receive this honor.”) It begs the question of just what humility is. As Zacharias says, it is to “go down.” Zacharias reiterates the teaching of the fathers that the demons want to go up, not down. They want to rise to heaven and be like God and even above God[1]. In order to free ourselves of demonic despond, we need to start by “going down.” If we are all about improving ourselves, fixing ourselves, making ourselves better, we become easy targets because we are rising up into the sphere of all that stands against God. But if we go down … go down as far as hell, we then go to where Christ is, and then are ready to be lead out of captivity and the bondage of despond.

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because that is what we see in the media. Few of us ever see it in church. Maybe this is a place to start as we seek a way out of our despond. Praying in confidence while standing upright with hands outstretched to God certainly has its place. But there’s another side to this coin. Before we can rise up with such confidence, we must learn to go down.


[1] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd American Edition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 28.

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Ransom: Exchange of One Life for Another

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Oddly, this verse regularly gives Bible scholars and theologians heartburn. The central point is sublime: In the whole paragraph, Jesus is telling his disciples, who are starting to get a big head, that leadership is expressed, not in lording over others, but in serving them. In this sentence he personalizes this and says that why he came to earth: to serve.

But then he adds that phrase, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This has led some to propose that the Devil was holding humans hostage and God had to pay a ransom (his Son’s life) to get them back. While this extreme position has never been the predominant view of the church, no matter which communion, it begs the question, “What’s this ransom all about?”

Over the years I have figured out that God’s work in the world is ultimately inscrutable, and human language can never do justice to what is going on. Because of this, our theological language is more suggestive than precise. The language about how the atonement works is typical. “Ransom,” (along with “justification,” “predestined,” etc.) cannot be precise in the same manner our scientific or mathematical language is precise.

Ransom was on my mind because Brenda and I are reading together in the evenings, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. We just read the portion about C.S. Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, an allegorical bit of science fiction that deals with this topic, and whose main character is Elwin Ransom.

With this fresh in my mind, this morning, I read the following from Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart, p. 52f:

In the Liturgy we are but poor instruments of Him who “offers and is offered.” So, when we say to God, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all and for all,” we do not just offer him a small cup of wine and a tiny piece of bread, for in that wine and that bread we put all our love, all our faith, all our intercession for our beloved, for the people who suffer, for the whole world. … So He does the same: He receives those gifts and He puts all His life in them, the Holy Spirit, and he says to us: “The holy things unto the holy.” In the Liturgy there is an exchange of lives. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man, and who can compare, or rather measure, this exchange of lives? For ours is temporal, corruptible, earthly, and His is incorruptible, heavenly, eternal. Therefore, in the Liturgy, there is an unequal exchange of lives.

To be clear, Zacharias is not talking about the word ransom, nor has he said anything about theories of the atonement. He is talking about how humans and God interact. But what he describes at this point in the lecture is quite a good description of ransom:

It is an exchange [read: ransom]. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man.

To return to Mark 10, this exchange, this ransom, is the ultimate example of the humble service that is the essence of Jesus’ leadership.

As an aside, I picked up the audio recording of this conference (Fr. Zacharias speaking to the gathering of the priests of the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood in 2001) fifteen or so years ago and have been listening to those repeatedly for over a decade. It was turned into the above-mentioned book. I purchased it a few years ago and am finally getting around to reading it. For my learning style, the book is far superior to the recorded lectures because I can stop and reread a particularly dense paragraph here and there. I am enjoying it immensely.

 

The Holy Spirit as Transformer

I ran across a surprising twist on the idea of transformation. St. Silouan (d. 1938) changes the direction of transformation. Yes the Christian is transformed by the Holy Spirit, but he said that divine grace is also transformed by the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “transformer” in the electrical grid sense. The glory of God is too hot or too charged or too high a voltage for us to handle. (“No one can see God and live,” Ex. 33:20.) It is the Spirit who transforms or steps down the grace into a “voltage” we can handle.

Different Christians are transformed (in the traditional sense) to different degrees. The Spirit, as Transformer, steps down divine grace that matches our own transformation. To some it comes hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold (to adapt Jesus’ parable of the Soils in Mt. 13:8).

For those who have followed me for a while, you might be reminded of the Orthodox understanding of judgment. (And this is no doubt what Silouan has in mind.) Judgment is not God’s anger, it is God’s love. For those who have been transformed, it is experienced as inexpressible glory. To those who have rejected or not taken advantage of God’s transformation, that same divine glory is experienced as burning pain. Zacharias describes it as follows:

As we are told in the Gospel of the Last Judgment, the notable appearance of the Lord at the end of the ages will be ineffably terrible: blessed for the humility of the righteous, but unbearable to the obstinacy of sinners.

Drawn from The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), Mount Thabor Publishing, 2nd American Ed., 2012, p. 39 and p. 34.

Lazarus Saturday: Joy between Repentance and Mourning

It’s Lazarus Saturday today (Mar 31), which means Great Lent is over and Holy Week will begin in two days. Once again, here’s a quick overview of the differences between Orthodox and Western Lent and Easter/Pascha. First, the Orthodox will celebrate Pascha on April 8. (You can’t have Pascha until after Passover, which is Mar 30 – Apr 7 this year, so that puts Pascha on Apr 8.) Second, the Orthodox count all the days of the week in Lent while the Western Churches don’t include Sundays, so we get to 40 days in two different manners. Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday and then ends on a Friday (7 days x 5 weeks = 35 + 7 more days = 40). So Great Lent ended yesterday. The Holy Week fast begins on Monday. That leaves two days in between: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

This interim time between the two fasts is an opportunity to reflect on what I have come to think of the three proper states of being for Christians. (This is my own thought; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so consider the source and take it for what it’s worth.). Those three states are repentance, mourning, and joy. The Lenten fast is a season of repentance. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Pascha are seasons of joy. The Holy Week fast is a season of mourning.

This distinction was lost to me as a Protestant because Lent—that period from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter—was an amorphous whole. As a result there was no specific season of mourning, except for Good Friday and maybe on that Sunday once every three years where that verse, “Jesus wept,” came up in the lectionary. I therefore want to consider the role of each in our Christian lives.

Mourning is a recognition and response to the fact that things are not right in the world. Geo Pallikunnel, a Syro Malabar (that is, the quite ancient Orthodox communion on the Indian subcontinent, also called the St Thomas church) theologian describes it this way. “Human nature is basically good, even though sin disintegrated it.” The world was created very good and humans were created in the image of God (thus we are basically good) but sin has marred and disrupted it. I especially like Pallikunnel’s use of the term “disintegration” in this context. In his monograph he describes our life of salvation in terms of our disintegration because of sin and Jesus Christ’s integration of our beings.

In this metaphor sin is more process than act. Things are coming apart at the seams and we know that this is not right, that things once were better (“very good” in fact) and should be better. But they’re not. We too often beat ourselves up for this state of affairs. We too often rage against our own frailties, our fellow Christians’ hypocrisy, and the evil that the world spawns. But such regrets and recriminations are not a proper Christian state of being. “Blessed are those who mourn …” says Jesus, not, “blessed are the angry.”

Rather than regrets and recrimination, our proper response (the second state of being) is Repentance. Repentance is not being sorry that I sinned; that’s, just … well, sort of sorry. Repentance isn’t an attitude, it’s an action; it’s turning around; it’s changing our direction. This is embodied in three specific actions: fasting, prayer, and alms. Said another way, repentance focuses on ourselves by denying (and thus, to a certain extent, taking control of) our out-of-control desires that are causing the disintegration of our being in the first place. Repentance is also focusing on others by truly looking at them in their life situation and helping to meet their needs which grow out of their own and the world’s disintegration. Repentance also focuses on God. The disintegration that I keep going on about is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cut off from God, who is life itself, all creation is dead (in the same way cut flower is dead—still beautiful and fragrant, but severed from its life-giving source). Repentance is specifically a turning toward God-who-is-Life-itself in order to re-establish the flow of life through prayer and the Eucharist.

Lent is a season set aside to focus on this second state of being: repentance. Holy Week, in contrast, is not about repentance; it’s about mourning. It is looking at the incarnation (that is, the whole earthly life of Jesus Christ) as a prolonged death, a seeming disintegration of God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” And ironically, just as Jesus said would happen, as we mourn, we are comforted. As we mourn we see clearly the current state of affairs and that it is not the true or intended state of affairs. Furthermore we see that God hasn’t left us to our own devices, but walks besides us, suffers beside us, and is “disintegrated” (if we dare use that term!) on our behalf.

But mourning does not occur in a vacuum. We can dwell in this state of being because we know there is another state of being: Joy. Lazarus Saturday is a truly special day on the Orthodox calendar. Saturday morning there is a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy that is a foretaste of Pascha. Everything is light instead of dark. The talk is of victory rather than death. It is a foretaste of Christ’s victory over death. It is an absolute proclamation that what looked like divine disintegration turns out to be the re-integration of all creation with its Creator.

We Christians have no need to rage. (The nations rage and the Psalmist asks, “Why?”) Instead we can mourn for a season because there is a state of joy. For the most part we exist in these three distinct states of being (repentance, mourning, and joy) simultaneously. But the Church helpfully breaks them apart as three distinct seasons to help us understand this admittedly odd state of affairs. And these three seasons come together in a mysterious and wonderful manner on these two days (Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday) between the two very different fasts of repentance and mourning that precede the greatest of Feasts of Rejoicing: Pascha.

Jesus wept … Lazarus come forth … But surely he stinks and smells of decay! That is life in a nutshell. Amen.

 

Rights, Responsibility, Freedom, and Self-Control

In the previous two essays about political Liberty and Rights, I emphasized that one of the assumptions about rights built into the Enlightenment was that they were necessarily connected to responsibility. One of the early critiques of the Enlightenment that has become increasingly obvious over the decades is that many of those Enlightenment assumptions were not a result of Enlightenment ideas, but were rather leftovers from the Christian worldview out of which the Enlightenment grew. Responsibility is one of those leftover ideas. The logical conclusion of Enlightenment political theory is Libertarianism, a political philosophy in which there is very little room, if any, for responsibility for others.

While the Liberty and Rights pairing is not a specifically Christian pairing (Liberty, in Christian theology has a different set of implications, especially as Paul uses it in contrast to the Mosaic Law) there is a close analog in Christian theology: The pairing of Freedom and Self-control.

Fr Thomas Hopko, in vol 4 of a slender set of theology books designed for lay readers and church Bible Studies called The Orthodox Faith, contrasts freedom and self-control. “According to the saints, self-control is one of the main elements of the divine image in man, coextensive with the gift of freedom which is often explained as the essential and basic element of man’s likeness to his Creator.”

Just as rights and responsibility are two sides of the same reality, so self-control and freedom are two sides of the same reality. True freedom is achieved in the ability not to exercise it. Similarly, in political philosophy, true rights can only be exercised to the degree that we recognize our responsibility to others, to order, and to the polis in general.

 

Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.

 

Moses, the Dark Side

For all of his good qualities—Lawgiver, mediator between God and the nation, organizer of the Exodus—Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. That incident began with a big problem.

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. (Num. 20:2)

Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting asking for a solution to the water problem and God told them,

Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. (v. 8)

What Moses did was a bit different.

So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (vv. 9-11)

Moses’ anger and lack of self-control shines through in these sentences. He demeans the people by calling them “you rebels.” Rather than speaking to the rock (as he was told to do), he scolds the people with a biting rhetorical question. And then, with no word to the rock, he whacks it twice with his staff. It is the image of a child striking out in helpless anger because he feels there are no options left. While immature, out of control, and childish, Moses’ response is understandable; the nation was out of water and everyone was mad at him. In spite of our sympathy with Moses, there is a big “but” involved.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (v. 12)

These petty outward actions reflect a deeper problem. God’s intent was to show his holiness. Moses, because of his uncontrolled passion and resulting outburst, diminished the moment to an embarrassing demonstration of his own failings. God was pushed into the background while Moses stole the limelight. The text then closes with these tragic words:

These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness. (v. 13)

God’s holiness was still demonstrated but it was demonstrated through the lens of the people’s mistrust and Moses’ pettiness. Throughout scripture we see that God prefers to clothe his glory in some created form, and especially in human form. Once again God clothes his glory in his servant Moses, but Moses’ antics are such that what we remember is less God’s glory and more Moses’ uncontrolled passions. The place isn’t named for what should have been memorable, “God Provides,” or “God Shows His Holiness.” Instead it’s named after what was actually most memorable; it’s called “Quarrel” (or “Meribah” in Hebrew).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This was the rub for Moses. He was a slave to his passions. When he tried to serve the Lord his passions took control and he ended up despising God’s holiness in the process of serving his own anger. Because no one can serve two masters, and because in this incident Moses demonstrated for all to see that his master was still his own passion, God told Moses that he would be incapable of crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and entering God’s rest.

By the end of Deuteronomy the people are near the edge of the Promised Land, but in a sort of limbo. They aren’t moving forward nor are they traveling to any particular place. And then we turn from Deuteronomy to Joshua and discover that everything changes.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. (Josh. 1:1-2)

Now that Moses is gone, the nation is finally free to “enter the place of rest” as Joshua calls it (v. 13). What are we to make of this? First (and this is the bit of the story that I have been emphasizing here), Moses represents our passions. 1 John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (2:15-17). As the years went by Christian teachers began to describe what 1 John is talking about, along with related issues, with a single term: the passions.

One of the gifts God gave us as part of his image is an unquenchable desire to fellowship with and ultimately to commune with God. One of the consequences of sin is that our original innate connection with God was broken and God became a stranger. But the unquenchable desire remained, and it attached itself to created things. In 1 John it is described as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life.” The Fathers and Mothers of the church recognized that anger, intellectualism, and other excesses of life were the same thing with different faces. When this unquenchable desire is pointed directly at God it draws us inexorably toward him. But, as is typical with sin, when this unquenchable desire is pointed at things other than God, it prevents us from drawing close to God.

This is Moses in the story arc that stretches from Meribah to his death in Deut. 34. He, and the passions he represents, had to die before the nation could enter the Promised Land. Similarly, before we are able to enter into God’s rest, it is necessary for our passions to be reigned in and redirected toward God and God alone. Paul calls this dying to the flesh. This battle with the passions is therefore at the center of our Christian life and our struggle to enter into fellowship and union with God.

Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the scripture text and are now thoroughly annoyed with me because of the reductionist manner in which I have read the text. This is a more complex story than what I have described, but I suspect we can’t appreciate the complexity without looking at the different threads individually. I will explore another thread of the story in the next essay.

St. John of Damascus on Black Lives Matter

I never expected St. John of Damascus to insert himself into my Black Lives Matter pondering, but leave it to a member of the Church Triumphant to nudge us, the Church Militant, in the right direction. I have no direct experience with BLM and my very limited interaction has come first through the online heresy hunters who found heresy in the movement. After a bit of eye rolling I thought I should at least check out their claims. That led me to the writings and podcasts of RAAN (Reformed African American Network, now called “The Witness”) led by Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) pastor Jemar Tisby. Let’s be clear that my opinion is an outsider’s perspective. I almost pursued ordination in the PCA but quickly became troubled by their utterly scholastic theology. Even though I am quite theologically conservative, I ended up being ordained by the mainline PC(USA) rather than it’s Evangelically oriented step-child. I am now Eastern Orthodox and as lily white as a Midwesterner of Danish decent can be, so this whole reflection is by an outsider both culturally and religiously.

I have been impressed by the theological consistency of Tisby. RAAN also includes those who know a lot about systematic theology but who have little clue how to think theologically and are thus caught up in the winds of popular outrage. I took a couple of RAAN members to task for just this sort of faux-theology a few months ago in this post. Black Lives Matter provided a mirror into our American psyche precisely because of this mix of good and bad theology. The PCA (Tisby’s own denomination) had an opportunity at their annual assembly to affirm the theological wrestling that some of their own members (such as Tisby) were doing. Instead, they sorted through that which had been said and written, found things that smelled of heresy, condemned it, back off a bit, then side-stepped the issue, and in the process furthered the suspicion that racism is far from rooted out of this denomination.

Shortly after this debacle in the PCA (and a similar debacle in the Southern Baptist Convention) RAAN changed their mission statement and their name. Rather than an umbrella organization for Presbyterian and Reformed African American pastors, it is downplaying the Reformed part and focusing more on how racism is still endemic within Evangelicalism as a whole. The new name, “The Witness” appears to be an attempt to highlight this change. Tisby and company have taken the high road and not railed against the PCA or the SBC, but it’s hard not to think that the new name is a direct result of the convention this summer.

I have struggled mightily to sort these events out. I believe that heresy (if it is actually there) needs to be rooted out by proclaiming the true faith. Furthermore, most of what this summer’s heresy hunters said about the theological claims surrounding Black Lives Matter was technically accurate (in a motes vs logs manner), so it seems I should have been happy. But I was deeply troubled by the heresy hunters, although I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Last week Cambridge professor Demetrios Bathrellos posted a paper to http://www.academia.edu entitled St John of Damascus and the Future of Orthodox Theology which helped me sort out this summer’s kerfuffle. For John of Damascus, the heresy in question was Islam. (Yes, the Church Fathers of the era considered Islam a Christian heresy and not a distinct religion.) Bathrellos argued that while John’s critique of Islam was insightful and very skilled, it also had a weakness that is common in anti-heretical scholarship. The critic is “often unfair to the other, tending as it does to draw a caricature of its opponents’ position instead of describing it accurately and fairly” Bathrellos goes on to say that this is “particularly repulsive in some of its forms that are still with us today” (p. 215).

Some of its modern forms, because of their excessive preoccupation with heresy, tend to make Orthodoxy defensive, and to give rise to multiple (and naïve) conspiracy theories. Modern heresy-hunters see heresies everywhere, not least in prophetic voices or practices that attempt to promote authentic Christianity in the context of (post-) modernity. This excessive preoccupation with heresy is responsible for the fact that Orthodoxy sometimes tends to define itself not positively, but negatively, namely not on the basis of what it believes but ont he basis of what it rejects. In this way it unwittingly allows its enemies to exercise upon its self-understanding a very powerful influence. (pp. 215f)

Although Bathrellos’ immediate context is the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis dispute, the repulsion he expresses about that quite perfectly summarizes my unease with the heresy hunters going after the organization formerly known as RAAN. Furthermore, Bathrellos puts his finger on the root cause of this sort of repugnant heresy hunting. Quoting Angelo de Berardino, he says, “in line with a large majority of post-Chalcedonian authors, he [John] rarely makes direct use of Holy Scripture. To defend and confirm Orthodoxy—the main aim of his theological work—he bases himself, as do the others, more on the authority of the Fathers.” This tendency to rely on “an assumed canon of fathers who represented infallible Orthodoxy” is how “Scholasticism was born” (p. 210) Here’s how Bathrellos describes Scholasticism:

This type of theology, albeit true to the Bible, depends largely on a mediated access to the Scriptures through the works of earlier fathers.

After describing it, Bathrellos goes on to describe the primary symptom of a scholastic theology.

This tendency for a certain dislocation of Scripture has at times been evidenced in all Christian traditions, including not only medieval scholasticism but also the Protestant Reformation. So, in spite of their emphasis on a return to Scripture, the reformers focused rather on the Epistles of Paul than on the Gospels, because the latter gave them more material for constructing dogmas, ideas, and values of perennial significance. (Is it, I wonder, merely an accident that the Damascene’s scriptural commentaries are almost exclusively on the Epistles of Saint Paul.) (p. 211)

In spite of his tendency toward scholasticism, Bathrellos insists that John transcended the tendency because of his ability, not only to wrestle with that which had been written previously, but also with the culture in which he found himself.

John belongs to a very long tradition of Christian authors who rejected innovation as heresy and yet were original thinkers. No innovation is allowed, for we cannot invent new truths … nevertheless, originality and creativity are necessary in a changing world, which demands an ever-deeper understanding of different aspects of the same Gospel, as well as a capacity to address it afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems. (p. 214)

There are two points where I am deeply troubled by the heresy hunters that went after RAAN. The first is the above-mentioned tendency to critique a caricature of the other rather than learning to know them in their complexity. The second is this necessary intersection that Bathrellos describes above. The heresy hunters seem only to be concerned that no innovation is allowed. Authentic theology, on the other hand, requires a capacity to address the Gospel (and not just the revered theologians of a previous generation) “afresh to new and different persons, conditions, questions, and problems.” And that is the medicine that keeps the virus called scholasticism at bay.

 

Prayer as Social Justice

A couple of years ago I thought I needed a change because my life had become too insular. One of the things I thought I needed to do was re-engage my social justice sensibilities that had dulled and been slowly moved to the back of the shelf since leaving the Presbyterian Church some twenty years ago. So I have spent the last many months praying and studying with mainline Christians, many of whom can be characterized as social justice warriors.

Of course this re-engagement came just before interesting days. The U.S. has not had two major party candidates running at the same time who were as polarizing as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in my lifetime. Before the election the nation was sure that Hillary would be elected and there was significant concern about how the Trump supporters would react. “We’re one nation,” my liberal friends would intone, “and we have a responsibility to unite after the election.” I have become a bystander in American politics and I don’t think I’ve been emotionally engaged with an election since Ronald Reagan. What follows may or may not align with reality, it is rather how the election affected me emotionally. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Republicans could have been sorer losers or more divisive than the Democrats were in the days following the election. I was appalled and embarrassed and particularly uncomfortable to have divine worship layered over the hatred and vitriol that I was sensing. Even to this day I run into the occasional liberal who says, “He’s not my president.” And I want to shake them and say, “Actually, he is your president, unless you’ve given up your citizenship.”

Eventually, the liberal response to the situation was to form study groups, advocacy groups, organize protests, etc. I was a part of a study group and attended one advocacy group meeting. I found the vitriol toward the conservatives to be just vile enough to make me very uncomfortable. My place of work, in contrast, is a hotbed of conservative radicalism. (Two coworkers claimed they went out and purchased bump stocks the week after the Las Vegas massacre because, “That’s the sort of protection we need, given how pissed off these crazy liberals are.” Given the emotions, I have tended to isolate myself from both sides. Those who claim to hold the middle ground, seem to me to be avoiding the hard issues, preferring to stick their head in the sand, hoping it all just goes away. That is not an option either.

It is in this context of Donald and Hillary, of alt-right and antifa, of pissed off prayers of the people, and a little bit of worry that my bump stock toting cubicle mate doesn’t get too angry this winter that I have been thinking hard about social justice and prayer. My experience with social justice efforts, both back in the 80s and 90s when I was a pastor and now as a layperson, is that while they do some good in relation to the poor and oppressed, they end up being far more divisive than constructive.

Prayer of the heart, on the other hand, is a first, halting step in a completely different direction. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the hatred toward President Trump my own and begin to recognize that it’s fear hiding behind a mask of hatred. As I descend down from head to heart I begin to make the bellicose threats of violence that I hear at work my own and I begin to recognize that all the bellowing grows out of the way the “liberal culture” has belittled me and dismissed my concerns for years.

As my prayer moves downward from head to heart, the most difficult step is to do like Christ did so that I may become as Christ is. In order to do this, I must “become sin” just as Christ did so that I may confess that sin, repent, and thus be right with God. So a fundamental part of my prayer is to be clothed with and fully embrace the reality of those with whom I am alienated. This is very heart of the centroversion I talked about in this essay

And once this union of my neighbor and myself begins to take hold, and once I can descend into hell with Christ and fully hear and accept his proclamation of victory over my sin (the sin and hatreds I have become), I can then … and only then … be prepared to go back and do what I need to do. I can serve the poor, I can become an advocate for the oppressed, I can seek justice alongside the immigrants who live in my community who are afraid of the cops, I can encourage the people who are afraid of the immigrants and what sort of future they portend. But I do these things from a completely different direction.

This new context also helps me understand what Erich Neumann was getting on about toward the end of The Origins and History of Consciousness. Social justice by itself is my effort to create the world after my image. Of course I will claim I’m doing it after God’s image and have a dozen Bible verses to prove my point. But because of the breakdown of the collective unconscious, or to put it another way, because I have largely lost my sense of personhood and think of myself and do things as an individual, my efforts at social justice don’t serve society as much as they serve my values. The prayer of the heart is the process by which I can begin to integrate me, as individual, with others including my enemies, even as I integrate myself with God’s energies.

One might argue that this is not really any different than what I used to do as a Presbyterian seeking social justice. I disagree. My experience with social justice efforts then and now is that they is focused on helping them, fixing them, and fixing the system. But what I need to do is help me, fix me, and recognize that I am the system. Over time (and if Neumann is correct, we’re talking decades, not months), as I reintegrate with my neighbor, whether enemy or friend, that reintegration will begin to have reciprocal effects. At that point all of us will begin to move toward the collective “me.”

And with this we have come full circle but ended up at a rather different place. Social justice should still be central in my life, but in a rather different way. I can ignore mishpat because that’s God’s problem and not mine. I can focus on mercy or alms (that is tzedakah) without getting worked up about the broken system which leads to the injustices that cause me the need to give alms. I don’t even need to worry whether the person receiving charity is “worthy of my charity” or whether I am just squandering my money. (And at this point I will stop to let us ponder that sentiment which has been thrown at me on more than one occasion when I give cash to a smelly person. As if I even dare think in terms of them being “worthy of my charity!”) Rather than get caught up in that vicious circle which will inevitably lead to judgment, anger, and possibly retribution, I will use these opportunities to expand my prayer of the heart, thus creating a virtuous circle in which a new community, and eventually, a new collective conscious will begin to arise.

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

 

A Brief Introduction to the Prayer of the Heart

When growing up I was taught that God wasn’t Santa Clause and prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff. In order to avoid the pitfalls of just asking for stuff I was taught to pray the ACTS way: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. As my sense of prayer grew more sophisticated I realized that all prayer, no matter what sort, was consciously entering into the presence of God. It wasn’t just asking God nor was it just talking to God, it was being with God. (Just as when we get to know another person we eventually develop the ability to be with that person in silence.)

The Orthodox ascetics (literally, the spiritual athletes, that is, the Christians who explored prayer very deeply) argued that all of the above, while the necessary place to start, was simply an exercise of the mind. In Orthodox sensibility the mind (and our thoughts) are part of our physical being and need to be distinguished from our inner self or heart (Greek nous). Beyond the activities of the mind, prayer can become a movement of our awareness from the mind down to the heart. When this happens we move beyond talking with God and even just being with God and begin communing with and uniting with God being to being.

[Excursus: in case that last sentence is making you nervous I will offer a technical clarification. “Union” is a loaded term, and by saying we can unite with God, I am not saying that our nature (Greek physis) unites with God’s nature (Greek ousia). Rather, to use the langue and distinctions that are typically used in the east (from the earliest days including Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Cyprus, Maximus the Confessor, but most especially associated with Gregory Palamas), our heart is united with God’s energies. What’s the difference between essence and energy? Divine energies (often called “the Uncreated Light”) are God, but they are not God’s essence. That’s one of the most important distinctions in Orthodoxy and Edward Siecienski’s book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, gives a nice overview in ch. 7. To be fair to those who remain uncomfortable, this whole area remains a point of contention between East and West.]

As we commune with God in the heart rather than in the head we open up the very core of our being to the Holy Spirit and we also begin to unite with God. In this way prayer and the Eucharist work together to unite us in the different aspects of our physical being (heart and body) with God. This is the true meaning of communion, not just as fellowship, but as “union with,” or joint participation. As I describe it here, the prayer of the heart sounds kind of easy. Those experienced in these matters say it is remarkably difficult. It’s not just praying in a different way nor is it praying without words. It is a spiritual movement away from the physical (the mind) and down into the true self (the heart). The ascetics say, based on centuries of experience, that it is something that typically can only be fully accomplished through the guidance of someone who already has experience in this area.

Why is it so hard? One of the consequences of original sin is the dissolution of our unity. Our connection with divine life was dissolved, leading to our immediate spiritual deaths and our eventual physical deaths. Our connection of our inner being (heart) and our physical being was dissolved, as a result of that our awareness of human nature, that is, our connection with other people faded, and for the most part, disappeared. Christian theologians most often speak of this in terms of the crisis of personhood (which, not surprisingly parallels historically Neumann’s crisis of the collective unconscious). Our personhood is not only us, it is us in proper relationship with other persons. Personhood presumes the human spirit (physis) which is shared by all of us and connects us. Because we are not aware of this collective spirit we ignore or deny it and think of ourselves as individuals. Reducing a person to an individual is a reflection of sin which blinds us to our true nature. Sin alienates us from our shared nature, but it does not annihilate it. Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ and John’s doctrine of the Vine and the branches assumes the reality of a shared human nature revivified in the victory of Christ and enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of the head (the ACTS process being one example) is our disunited self trying to talk to God. Prayer of the heart is a step toward reuniting the disunited parts. It starts with reuniting ourselves (the movement down from head to heart) which in turn makes it possible to begin the process of reuniting with God and with others. Furthermore, this process, the prayer of the heart, makes our heart alive and pliable thus making it possible to expand the heart (an image drawn from the parable about the new wine and wine skins). The more our heart expands, the more God is able to enter in, the deeper, broader, higher, and more profound our communion – or union – with God becomes.

Because of a 700 hundred year history of individuation (according to Jung) we have lost touch with and have become profoundly alienated from our human nature. The tragic effect of this reality is that as we enter into the prayer of the heart, we’re not even aware that we are reconnecting with our nature. We get all excited about God (which is certainly a good thing!) but remain oblivious to humanity (and if the ascetics are right, with all creation) that we are being reconnected to all because of a living and expanding heart.

Ironically, even as we pray without being aware of its social implications, social justice becomes yet another tool of alienation. We pursue it because in our binary thinking it is active (and not escapist). We participate in it because we think that in this way we participate in God’s salvation of the whole world. But salvation, including the salvation of the world, only comes as the world participates in the life-giving divine energies. And those energies are available to the world, both people and creation, through our hearts that are expanded by true prayer.

But what does this sort of prayer of the heart, with our neighbor or enemy specifically in mind, look like? I will explore this further in the next essay.

Next essay: My Neighbor, Myself

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.