Nicholas lash on the Nature of Religion

In the era of the Enlightenment religion was understood primarily as associations of subscription to particular beliefs, it would be more fruitful to consider them as schools whose pedagogy has the twofold purpose of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire.

British philosopher/theologian Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and the End of Religion, 1996 (1994 Teape Lectures), p. 27.

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Canaanites, Dogs, and St. Christopher

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.

Passions, Tyranny, and Joy: The Struggle of the Christian Life

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.

Why no Outrage?

This morning I was asked why I haven’t written something condemning white supremacy in the United States and saying something about the Charlottesville march, the General Lee statue, etc. There’s a very good reason for it, imho, but before I get to that I will say that I find the state of affairs to be abhorrent. It says bad things about us as an American society when self-professed neo-Nazis feel comfortable marching without the anonymity of the white sheets they used to use … And we’re still not doing much about it!

I also suspect that there are a whole bunch of angry but ignorant young people who were never properly taught history who are caught up in the alt-right movement without any real understanding of how dangerous and abhorrent the larger impulse is. So I am more saddened than angry by the current state of affairs.

But social media is not the appropriate forum for this condemnation. For most of us it is easy to express outrage in the relative anonymity and safety of the internet. (I am well aware of trolls and the psychic terror they can cause. Before social media was around I received death threats aimed at me and my family through the mail at the church, so I do have a sense of the violation and fear that these sort of activities create, but that is the exception rather than the rule.) For most of us, expressing our online outrage costs us nothing and accomplishes nothing while simultaneously making us feel morally superior because we merely expressed our outrage.

Expressing outrage is not the purpose of this blog. If I do express outrage about Charlottesville, shouldn’t I also express outrage about Syria and Egypt where they pick up random Christian clergy and jail them or torture them simply because they can? And if I express outrage about Charlottesville, Syria, and Egypt, shouldn’t I express outrage over the child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Guam? And if I do that, shouldn’t I also do the same about Canada where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has fallen far short in its duty to address the abuses of native people over the years?  … well, you get the idea.

If it’s local and I have some insight that others may not have, I do use this blog as a forum. I recently expressed outrage again at ABC when they essentially admitted their culpability in the smear campaign against Iowa Beef Products. I have personal experience and knowledge about how damaging that so-called news reporting was, so it seemed okay to express my opinion. But that is the exception that proves the rule. If I lived in Virginia or was still teaching in Mississippi then Charlottesville would be the exception that proves the rule, but that’s no longer my context.

So enough outrage on this forum for now. I’ll get back to the lectionary, Karl Barth, and the occasional Zombie Apocalypse news flash.

Truth Arising from the Touch of Jesus’ outstretched hand

I have a long history of engagement with Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. The epistle, Romans 10:5-15, is one of those texts that is deeply problematic for Protestants while at the same time one of the most beloved. In a variety of classes in both college and seminary the instructor has posed the question, “What is Paul talking about?”

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, / on your lips and in your heart” – (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s the hard part of the text, the beloved part follows in v. 15

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The associated Gospel, from Mt 14:22-33, is the story of Peter walking on the water. Fairly early on in my pastoral life I put the two texts together. I had been reading Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and it dawned on me what everyone (Polanyi, Paul, and Matthew) were getting on about.

There is a facile reading of Romans which interprets Paul as saying that the point is neither rote repetition nor salvation by works, it is rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is required. This is true as far as it goes but misses Paul’s larger argument that cuts to the heart of our assumptions about how the universe works.

A very long time ago an influential bishop by the name of Augustine, reading the Bible through the lens of Plato, came up with the hair-brained platonic idea that truth was a philosophical concept that was absolute, along the same lines as gravity. The Western church has been either vociferously defending Augustine or trying to overcome him ever since. Calvin and Luther, and thus Protestants in general, were quite enamored of Augustine, so this has been a particular problem for Protestants.

The older western theologians, such as Ireneaus, and pretty much all of the eastern church understood that truth is not so much a philosophical absolute as it is an outgrowth of a loving relationship. Saying truth is absolute is remarkably parallel to Isaac Newton saying that time and space are absolute. While these ideas work on an everyday level, they are simply wrong at a fundamental level. It was Einstein who figured out that it’s the speed of light that’s absolute and time and space coordinate to the speed of light. Thus, as we approach the speed of light, time and space are bent toward the more fundamental reality.

Similarly, the fundamental reality for Christians is the living Lord, Jesus Christ. The radix, or fundament of the faith is the incarnation, the joining together by God, of eternal God with creation itself. This change of focus from truth as a philosophical construct to the living and loving person of Jesus Christ is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts that Protestants and Catholics struggle with. Just as the Sun is the center of the solar system and not the earth, so the Son, the living Word, is the center of Christian faith, and not truth or written word.

Paul’s point in Rom. 10 is that objectifying truth ultimately blinds us and leads us away from the living and loving Truth of Jesus Christ. By objectifying the truth we bring Christ to us (either bring him down from heaven or up from the grave, in the words of Paul) and thus make Christ our servant. That is not the path of salvation. Instead of bringing Christ to us, we need to go to Christ. Christ is very near, but it requires us to enter into relationship.

And this, as we come to the end of the lectionary reading, is why the one who preaches good news is so blessed. It simply does not do to read the text. Truth isn’t there to be grasped and eaten like an apple, it arises in the midst of relationship. As the person sharing the Gospel and the hearer of the Gospel come together, truth arises and salvation is possible. Just as true Truth is found at the coming together of Creator and creation in Jesus Christ, so salvation is found in relationship and community, not in words on the page.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the point of the Sea of Galillee, the storm, Peter in the boat, and Jesus walking on the water. As long as Peter was in communion with Jesus, moving toward him, entering into that living and loving relationship, Peter too could walk on the water. But Peter “objectified” rather than “relationalized” the situation. He looked at the stormy water surrounding him; he looked back at the boat far away, he looked at Jesus, also far away, and he became isolated and alone in his predicament. Salvation is far away when we are isolated and alone.

But Jesus, ever loving and ever drawing us toward himself, reached out and lifted Peter from the stormy depths. Relationship was restored and the truth of salvation was once again established in the interaction of God and human.

In short, we can’t make it on our own. Truth and salvation come only at the crossroads where we enter into community: community with God and community with others. The truth, as an objectified philosophical thing, will never save us, but moving toward relation with God, the Living One, the Truth – the living Truth – reveals itself in the relationship itself, and salvation is the result. Thanks be to God.

Yeah, That Zombie Apocalypse

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.

Living For Other People rather than Against Them

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.

Gender Identity and the Passions

I watched a twitter tiff unfold last week that was rooted in two people talking right past each other. Natasha Sistrunk Robinson (@sista_theology) tweeted something in defense of LGBT people after President Trump’s tweet about trans people no longer being welcome in the military. Sistrunk Robinson considers herself an evangelical (MA from Gordon Conwell) but many of here evangelical brothers and sisters aren’t so thrilled to have her in the evangelical fold because “she sees life differently,” as one of her defenders (Jemar Tisby, see below) commented.

In this case, the issue everyone thought was in question was “human rights.” But the conceptions of the extent of our essential humanity were so different that no communication was happening. Given the fact that everyone involved seemed to have theological degrees from reputable schools (Gordon Conwell, Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster) one would think the issue of presuppositions would be explored. It never was.

The church fathers were always busy exploring the nature of our humanity and among the things they considered fundamental realities were:

  • Our passions are expressions of our false selves. They are an expression of the heart which is “devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

  • We are becoming; our being has not yet matured to (or been revealed in) its final form. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet be revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). All sorts of things are being revealed. Our work will be revealed “with fire” (1 Cor. 3:13), and “the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” It is therefore false to assume that the things we assume define our humanity right now are the things that actually define our humanity. We are in flux and not yet revealed fully.

This problem of defining what it means to be human is exacerbated in Western cultures, where some form of capitalism has been the economic philosophy du jour for centuries. Jemar Tisby (Executive Director of the Reformed African American Network) said, “A lotta people say America’s original sin is racism. I disagree. America’s original sin is greed. … And without that driving principle of greed, slavery loses its foundation” (from a lecture at the RAAN national convention).

If we put Tisby’s insight into the context of the church fathers we can also say that America was founded, not with our virtues in mind (as an actual Christian nation might do) but rather with our vices. Civility, in a capitalist society, is brought about by playing my vices off of your vices. If the expression of my vice begins to impinge on your freedom to express your vice, then law steps in and adjudicates.

In this context where greed (and the other passions, to use the father’s term) are accepted as normal, there is a tendency to begin to think of the passions (which are, for the most part, quite pleasant to indulge in) as normative. In other words, we begin to think that we are our passions. We celebrate entrepreneurs as the drivers of our good lives and in the process fail to recognize the avarice and lack of social justice that drives entrepreneurial culture. The sexual harassment culture that is only now being admitted to in the high tech industry is just the latest example of the subtle assumption that our passions are who we are, and the role of government is mostly to keep a lid on competing passions.

It is therefore no surprise at all that when we begin to define our humanity in terms of our passions as currently expressed in a manner pleasant to us, that transgender identification seems to be normative and, by extension, a proper expression of the image of God in our humanity.

So, if this is the path you want to go down (and it is the necessary path to follow if you decide to espouse gender identity rights), at the very least recognize the roots of this sort of thinking. Just because the church fathers said what they said about the passions does not necessarily make it right. But the other side of the coin is also true. Just because our culture, which is rooted in the principle of greed and celebrates everything from gluttony to lust to envy, etc, has come to a general conclusion that these passions are not only good but what properly define us as humans, it doesn’t make it necessarily right.

Until the last century, Christian culture has been a culture of self-denial, not self-expression. This is one of the fundamental Christian presuppositions that was never even considered in the Twitter tiff between theologically trained Reformed evangelical Christians. As alarming as our President is, that is far more alarming to me, as a Christian, than a tweet by a President (who is seemingly consumed and controlled by his passions) about whether transgender people are welcome in the military.

Hidden Evil and the Hidden Kingdom

The Gospel lessons for the last two Sundays form an interesting contrast. On July 23 (Mt 13:24-30 with interpretation in 36-43) we heard that Kingdom of Heaven is like a wheat field in which an enemy has secretly sown tares (a weed that is almost indistinguishable from wheat).

“You want me to clear the weeds so they don’t compete with the wheat?” asks the servant. “No,” says the landowner. “You can’t tell the difference between the two. Wait until harvest and separate them when you can tell the difference.”

On occasion that which we think is evil in our lives turns out to be, if not a virtue in and of itself, at least something that builds virtue within us. More often that which we think is virtuous turns out to be a subtle form of evil. Thrift, for instance, might simply be stinginess that has not yet reached fruition. Kindness is sometimes a mask for manipulation. And so the field (that is, our heart) is the strange mix of good grain and weeds that we must deal with throughout our lives, the weeds never completely being removed until we die.

Too often we assume that this text is describing an event where the evil people get separated from the righteous people. While there is an element of this (the angels will gather all evildoers), there is also something more fundamental going on. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers … Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Why is it that the righteous will be able to shine? Because the cause of sin will be removed from their hearts. It is easy and comfortable (assuming we think of ourselves as being one of the righteous) to draw the line between evil and righteous and then put ourselves on one side and evil people on the other. But this is not quite what the text says. Solzhenitsyn famously said that the line between good and evil cuts straight through the human heart.

We learn here that the judgment is not about getting rid of bad stuff. That is certainly an “effect,” but God’s cause is to make us shine like the sun. The “cause” is purification; the “cause” is to make the gold shiny. The “effect” of this action is the removal of evil. That order may seem inconsequential, but the significance is that the judgment is not that ultimately terrible thing that we too often dread. Like a young child that screams in terror before the bath, the bath turns out to be not quite as horrible as expected, and the effect of being squeaky clean before going to bed is quite wonderful.

I won’t ignore the fact that some people refuse to let go of their evil and as a result get gathered up along with “the causes of sin,” but again, this is not the goal of the judgment, it is a side effect. If we love our sin (and refuse to let go of it) more than we love God, when the sin is removed, we get swept away with the sin because they’re still holding on. So while some people (the “evildoers” in this text) are judged, it is worth noting that this is not actually the point of the judgment.

This coming Sunday’s text (also from Mt. 13) turns the theme of the previous parable on its head. If the former was about the hiddenness of evil within the Kingdom, this text is about the hiddenness of the Kingdom within the world. It is like a tiny seed that grows into a tree, it is like the yeast, which is invisible in the flour, but transforms the flour into soft, fluffy, and desirable bread. It is like a treasure hidden in a field that one must search for to find.

Everything is hidden. And this is not merely rhetorical flourish. It is so central to these parables that we must consider this truth carefully. What we see is the world, the created order, society, and culture. We may be enamored by or disgusted with culture. We may think the earth is pretty indestructible or worry about an apocalypse, in some form, that’s just around the corner. We may see the religions of the world and think that they are the problem or contributing to a solution. But beyond what we see is the Kingdom of Heaven. We too quickly want to conflate the Kingdom of Heaven with “my church” or this environmental organization, or that political philosophy. But the Kingdom and all those things cannot be conflated. The Church should be an expression of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not identical to it. The Church (in terms of denominations or bishops, or buildings, or confessions) are human structures and the line of the kingdom slices right through them. It requires eyes of faith to see the kingdom within the structures of the world.

And even more hidden than the Kingdom of Heaven is evil. Evil expresses itself in institutions, people, political ideologies, and even the seemingly innocent desires of our hearts. But its root is hidden deep in the human heart. And evil appears so benign that we have “a devil of a time” (to borrow a phrase from Bulgokov’s novel, The Master and Margarita) telling the difference between evil and the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what’s a person to do with all this hiddenness? The answer is twofold. First we must search for the true presence of the Kingdom of Heaven like a person searching for a treasure in a field. Second, it’s a given that as we search we will find evil everywhere we think we find the Kingdom, and vice versa. But don’t be discouraged. God will take care of the evil in due course (both the “evil ones” in society and the evil within your own soul). Don’t let evil distract you. Seek the Kingdom and God’s righteousness and God will reward you richly.

St. Porphyrios said (and I keep this quote on my phone to be reminded of it regularly), “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look toward Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.”

The Place Where God Dwells

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).