Gregory: The Patron Saint of Social Media

In the previous essay I explored the rather different Hebrew conception of time. I began that essay by mentioning Sergie Bulgakov, a theologian who was active about 100 years ago. Bulgakov, while brilliant, was eccentric, and his eccentricities are probably the reason there continues to be so much interest in him 100 years after his writing career. And, among his most infamous eccentric beliefs is that he was a universalist. Before I can say more, though, we need some background related to my previous essay on time.

Probably because Eastern Orthodoxy has no magisterium and is instead led by the cooperative will of all the bishops, there are far fewer things that are dogma. (In fact, I suspect Orthodoxy has fewer dogmatic statements than most Protestant churches, which, ironically, consider dogma suspicious in general.) In place of a complex set of dogmas, the Orthodox church has theologumena, which is best described as a consensus of the church fathers and mothers. While the theologumena are authoritative, it is not strictly required to hold to these beliefs and rules in the same way that dogmatic teachings (such as the Holy Trinity, the incarnation, and Christ’s return) are required.

Among the teachings that are not dogmatic is what happens to unbelievers after they die. St. Gregory of Nyssa (not only a saint, but celebrated as one of the three Cappadocian fathers—the three most significant theologians of their generation) taught that there was a possibility that everyone (including unbelievers) would be saved in the end. It is far beyond the scope of this essay to go through the details of the argument, but two things can be said about it. First, a significant piece of the argument in favor of universalism has to do with that slippery word “eternal” that we explored in the previous essay. Second, Gregory didn’t say everyone would be saved, rather he held out the possibility that universal salvation might be a possibility.

In relation to the first point, the Greek words that get translated “eternal life,” and in turn, “eternal damnation,” don’t speak primarily about the length of time, but rather about the quality of life. At this point I need to make clear that I have not read Gregory himself on this subject, only various authoritative interpreters of his work. But Gregory argued that the Greek word we translate eternal is distinctly different than our modern concept of infinite. Eternal damnation, therefore, doesn’t point to the length of time spent in hell, but rather that hell is a separate realm.

He speculated about this partly because of what Paul said in 1 Cor 15, a passage that is exceedingly difficult to make sense of. Beginning in v. 24, Paul says,

24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. 29 Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

There are a couple of things I will note in this passage. First, in the end, God will be all in all. Gregory speculated that this might mean that God is even greater than our unbelief. In the end, God has the ability to draw, even the unbelieving to himself. Second, if our own deaths are an absolute break, after which nothing can happen (as Hebrews seems to indicate), then what about this “baptism on behalf of the dead”? To be clear, no one knows what Paul is talking about. Whatever it was he was referring to, it is a practice lost in the mists of time. Furthermore, no Christian group (except heretical sects) baptize on behalf of the dead, so v. 29 is a real head scratcher.

Gregory’s point is that we simply don’t know what happens after death. We have hints and pointers. The general arc of the New Testament is that there is such a thing as eternal damnation. But then there are other things, such as 1 Cor. 15, that don’t fit the general pattern. When this is the case, it is dangerous to be dogmatic. The only sensible thing to do is say, “I don’t know.”

This is why Gregory held out the possibility of universal salvation while more generally holding to the majority opinion that there will be damnation that lasts forever for those who reject God’s offer of mercy. His speculation about the theoretical possibility of universal salvation was his way of emphasizing that some things are beyond our comprehension and when it comes to those things, Christian humility demands us saying, “I don’t know.” Many teachers since then have been of the opinion that Gregory would have been better off just keeping his mouth shut. He should have left it at, “I don’t know” rather than speculating about other possibilities.

And this brings us to Bulgakov, who was not nearly as humble as Gregory. Using logic and exegesis that was “unique,” he felt that he had proved the point. He said that there wasn’t an “I don’t know” involved. Instead, he argued that he had proved from scripture, the teachings of the church, and logic, that universal salvation was necessarily the truth of the matter.

And this is Bulgakov’s error. It is not that he believed and taught universal salvation. His error was that he was dogmatic about a matter that the church in her wisdom has always refused to be dogmatic about.

His views are certainly eccentric. Eccentricity is something we should forgive because Christian charity demands it. But his attitude is arrogant to the point of being dogmatic. That is something Christians absolutely cannot condone. And again I emphasize that Gregory was never dogmatic on this topic. His point was quite specifically, “I don’t know.”

And the ironic thing is that even though we absolutely cannot condone Bulgakov, he may actually be right. But on that point we need to stick with Gregory and affirm that in the end, we don’t know.

And finally, I offer a concluding unscientific postscript. I believe that Gregory of Nyssa should be the patron saint of social media. Why would I say that? Well, “I don’t know,” if you get my drift. 😉

 

Advertisements

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.

Revisiting the Humility of God

Is the true character and fullness of God better revealed in Christ’s first coming in ignominy or his second coming in glory? Granted, this is an arbitrary question dividing two things that, in a very real sense, can’t be divided. But I divide them because I suspect that we unconsciously separate Christ’s first and second coming in our everyday thinking. I suspect our thinking goes something like this: Jesus Christ came to us as a human and was crucified for us (pro nobis), and it’s no surprise that the world rejects him, because, well, just look at Him! But when he returns again in glory there will be no question of who he is because his glory (that is, the true character) will be revealed.

Trinity College and Ancient Faith podcasts is in the process of releasing a series of lectures by Fr. John Behr, professor at St. Valdimir’s Seminary, on Athanasius’ seminal work, On the Incarnation of the Word given at Trinity College, Toronto. Behr is making the case that today we rather miss the point of the book. Given the history of doctrinal disagreements, we think it’s about the nature of the incarnation. Behr argues that when approached in this manner Athanasius is indecipherable. The real point is that Athanasius is defending is the humiliation of the Cross. The book is not about the incarnation per se but rather about the possibility that God can be humiliated; it’s not a book about the nature of the incarnation, it is rather about its implications. Athanasius is arguing that the true glimpse into divine glory is not the bright and shiny stuff but rather the humiliation itself.

After finishing my time-consuming project on prayer as social justice (as recently posted on this blog), I have time to return to Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, which has been gathering dust on the shelf for a couple of months. As seems to happen, Karl Barth is talking about the same thing. (I have become used to such synchronicity.) Barth is exploring sin as human pride (starting on p. 413)  and he argues that we fail to recognize God in creation as well as God in Christ because of pride, and in turn the eternal Son became human for this reason, to cure us of our pride.

According to Barth, Jesus Christ “maintains and exercises and demonstrates His Godhead in the obedience of the eternal Son to the eternal Father” (p. 417). There are three verbs. In the humiliation of the incarnation, Jesus Christ “maintains” his Godhead. This is the “fully God and fully human” phrase of the Creed. But this exercise is not exceptional nor out of the ordinary for God, this humiliation is fully in God’s character. This is the second verb. He “exercises” his Godhead. And finally, it is in this humiliation of the incarnation that the true character of God is revealed to us. This is the third verb. He “demonstrates his Godhead in the obedience of the eternal Son to the eternal Father.”

Sounds a lot like Behr’s take on Athanasius. Athanasius, Barth, and Behr are saying that if we are to begin to comprehend God in his creation and work, we need to focus on divine humility. Incidentally, this is precisely how I got back to reading Karl Barth. My first essay of last year, God’s High Humility (on this topic, but earlier in the book) was on essentially this same subject. That’s the week I pulled this volume off the shelf. One year and 417 pages later (just over half way through Church Dogmatics IV/1), Barth is still circling back to the same topic.

 

God’s High Humility

So I’m reading this okay book on compassion and in one chapter the authors quote ch. XIV of Barth’s Dogmatics four times. Was kind of bored with the book so I pulled out that volume and began to read that chapter entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country.” I just ran across this nugget:

In the fact that God is gracious to man, all the limitations of man are God’s limitations, all his weaknesses, and more, all his perversities are His. … In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God. He does not shrink from him …

God shows himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this.

[Okay, here’s the good part!]

In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty he is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation (IV, 1), pp. 158f.

The Humility of the Holy Spirit

The following is from Archimandrite Sophrony’s book, His Life Is Mine.

The Holy Spirit comes when we are receptive. He does not compel. He approaches so meekly that we may not even notice. If we would know the Holy Spirit we need to examine ourselves in the light of the Gospel teaching, to detect any other presence which may prevent the Holy Spirit from entering into our souls. We must not wait for God to force Himself on us without our consent. God respects and does not constrain man. It is amazing how God humbles Himself before us. H loves us with a tender love, not haughtily, not with condescension. And when we open our hearts to Him we are overwhelmed by the conviction that He is indeed our Father. The soul then worships in love. (p. 49)