Works and Cicada Christians

Probably the most difficult thing to explain about Orthodoxy is its emphasis on effort and how that differs from salvation by works. I ran across yet another Martin Luther quote that helps to frame the question. (It’s hard to imagine, by the way, a theologian more opposed to salvation by works than Luther.) (And, yes, I’m still studying Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith.)

The medieval scholastics (as well as the Protestant spiritualists, the original form of what we would call Evangelicalism today) described salvation as human love striving after grace. It was earthly human love striving upward (toward heaven or toward transcendence) to grasp hold of God’s grace. Luther rejected the idea as yet another form of works salvation. Luther insisted the direction was wrong; the only option is for God in Christ to come down to us.

That is indeed precisely the point of justification if it is to mean anything at all. We can’t strive for it; it must be a gift.

We are coming to the end of cicada season in northeast Nebraska. There is a cherry tree just off our back patio that the cicadas like to sit on. Earlier this summer I had the privilege of watching a cicada molt. It had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the too-small old shell. It would pause every now and again to rest and then struggle again. Eventually it worked it’s way free and then it spread its wings wide to let them dry. The whole process probably took an hour, and then it flew off to do cicada stuff leaving the old empty shell stuck to the tree trunk along with about a half dozen others.

There was nothing the cicada could do to make itself grow. It’s life and growth process was not of its own making but was pure gift. But for that gift of growth to continue normally, the cicada had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the old shell. I’m guessing if it would not have done that, the old shell would eventually constrict it so much that the cicada would die.

Luther is correct that we cannot strive upward to get grace; that movement is all wrong. Grace happens only when Christ comes down and indwells us as Luther described. But when Christ does come down and indwell us, true life occurs and growth begins to happen. This is the place where Christian striving becomes a necessity. Like the cicada, we must put off that old shell so that the new life gifted to us has the opportunity to grow and expand. Spiritual growth and divine grace always remain pure gift, but the effects of that grace (ie, spiritual growth) creates a situation where we must strive in order to make room for it – and note: not to grasp it, but to make room for it. (A completely different biblical metaphor with a rather different emphasis, but compare to quenching the Spirit; one might think of it as a passive action – verb tenses simply cannot do justice to the process.)

2 Timothy 2:5 compares the Christian life to athletics. If you don’t strive for it, you don’t get crowned. This is the sort of striving the Orthodox are fond of talking about. It’s not striving for justification. It’s not reaching up to heaven to take hold of God, because we can’t; it is God that takes hold of us. It is rather the hard work required to let go, to work our way out of the old skin that constrains us so the new can grow and do what it is supposed to.

Let me be clear that this is not Luther’s view (nor is it the view of Formula of Concord style Lutherans today). Luther tended to view things in black and white and as either/or. My description of proper Christian effort doesn’t fit into that stark view of things. In his Lectures to the Galatians (Mannermaa, p. 40), Luther says, “This attachment to [Christ] causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ and into his kingdom.”

There seem to be no cicada Christians struggling to get out of their old skin in Luther’s view. They remain helpless until Christ “pulls” them out. Lutherans (and Protestants in general) and Orthodox differ on this point and I won’t pretend the difference doesn’t exist. But with the differences noted, there is a definite distinction between the striving upward after grace (ie, works salvation) and the striving to put off the old skin of death after new life and growth has been graciously given.

And thanks be to God that cicada season is nearly over!

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A follow-up of faith, exercise and striving

I’m still thinking about my last post where I called the following statement an Evangelical platitude: “In order for one to have faith, a person must exercise it.” I think some clarification may be in order. I call this a platitude, not because it is platitudinous in its essence, but rather that it has become one of those things that we Christians tend to say without considering the gravity of it.

Whoever first said that true faith requires us to exercise it said something profound and necessary. This is James’ point when he says that faith without works is dead. The point of all this is that faith is more than mental assent; it’s an attitude (or a posture) which inevitably leads to action.

Over and over the church has rediscovered that the talk is easy and the walk … well, not so much. That’s why there’s been a very long line of Christians taking it the extra step beyond what most of the rest of the Christians were doing. We could go all the way back to those first ascetics who left Jerusalem and Alexandria for the desert, in order to strive against sin and strive in the direction of God. And in that same tradition would be contemporary Protestant movements, such as the Navigators (at least as they were 20 or 30 years ago) who understood it wasn’t good enough to merely assent. Faith required action.

“In order for one to have faith, a person must exercise it,” is a platitude only so far as it is a profundity that we tend to take for granted. That’s why hearing the same sentiment from a different tradition … in this case, a monk from Mt. Athos … is always helpful to wake us from our slumber. As the deacon says several times throughout the Divine Liturgy: “Pay attention!” He says it because more often than not that’s what we need to do.

Exercising One’s Faith

The Greek word “askesis” is equivalent to the English word “exercise.”  The English word athlete comes from this same Greek word “askesis.”  It is transliterated into English as “ascetic” or “asceticism.” With this in mind, we can realize that the following two sentences use the same terms in much the same way, although it seems they have a very different force. The first is a common American Evangelical platitude:

In order for one to have faith, a person must exercise it.

The other comes from the Introduction to Archimandrite Sophrony’s book St. Silouan the Athonite:

Faith entails ascetic striving.