Wishing to Love Christ

Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery

“We must all be humble: in thought, in word, and in behavior. We will never go before God and say, ‘I have virtues.’ God does not want our virtues.

Always appear before God as a sinner, not with despair, but ‘trusting in the mercy of His compassion.’ Suffice it that we find the secret. The secret is love for Christ and humility. Christ will give us the humility. We with our weaknesses are unable to love Him. Let Him love us. Let us entreat Him earnestly to love us and to give us the zeal for us to love Him too.”

(Wounded by Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, p 154)

Wrestling with God: Struggling to Make Sense of the World

Faith in God has not come easy for everybody.  The Scriptures themselves prevent some of God’s chosen people as not only wrestling with faith in God, but in Israel’s case (Genesis 32:24-32), wrestling with God Himself!  Protestant Professor Frances Young offers a brief history of this wrestling with God, which has become a metaphor for the modern humans struggle with faith in a world that often makes no sense.

Abraham offers Isaac

“Our condition is profoundly shaped by modernity. Since the Enlightenment, European culture has been struggling with the question of God. Wrestling with God’s existence or goodness began in earnest with the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Suddenly, for thinkers across Europe, it no longer made sense to speak of a created order ruled by a gracious providence when tens of thousands had apparently died senselessly. This could hardly be the best of all possible worlds, …

The dehumanized and industrialized genocide of the Holocaust not only demonstrated ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ but also called into question the idea of the biblical God who protected his chosen people. The advent of radio and television has revealed the sheer ongoing scale of human suffering and atrocity…  

Dachau Crematorium
Dachau Crematorium

God’s morality is in question, and the best option after Auschwitz appears to be atheism… So, over the past three centuries Europeans have wrestled with a God who turned out to be powerless…  Yet for some, including myself, wrestling with God has been a desperate plea for blessing, hanging in there like Jacob, and getting lamed in the process… My account of patristic interpretation had Gregory (Nazianzus) as its climax because he provides the clue to one way in which this story might speak. In the end it is the creature that is disabled, defeated in the attempt to know God. For the whole nature of God is beyond creaturely comprehension…

For at the heart of that struggle with God is an experience of loss of security and self-sufficiency, of being put in one’s place. In the end it is not that we judge God – rather God judges us; and that implies a need to reconfigure our notions of God. We imagine we are in control, we make up our minds, we decide whether we are religious or not, we choose whether to seek God or not. But the whole point is that we are mere limited creatures, vulnerable, far from in control, certainly not capable of grasping the reality of God…

 Aseitas simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. There can be only one such Being: that is God. And to say that God exists a se, of and by reason of Himself, is merely to say that God is Being Itself. Ego sum qui sum… Pondering the book of Job, that intense debate about God’s goodness within the Bible, I began to discern that the answer to Job’s questioning was simply the fact that he found himself in God’s presence. In God’s presence all the questions just fade away, as you realize the immensity of the infinite, divine reality with which you are confronted.” (Frances M. Young, Brokenness & Blessing, pp 49-51)

Martin Luther king 2015

M L King

I am posting this blog for our Martin Luther King national holiday, but it will be a real roundabout way of getting to the theme.   Most of my blogs consist of quotes from what I’ve read, this will be no exception, though where I am going to begin may seem to have no connection to what I claim this blog is about.  So here goes:

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

For whatever reason, I never felt any desire to read the writings of Charles Darwin.  But recently I did read his diary, THE VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE, which were his recorded observations from the 4-5 years he spent touring the world onboard the ship, The Beagle.  I found the book far more compelling than I ever imagined I would.  Darwin was a good observer of geography, meteorology, geology, biology and sociology.  He has an interesting writing style and saw a lot of the world, experiencing many adventures along the way.  His theories of evolution did not come through this work very much as it was mostly his observations not his effort to synthesize what he observed or draw conclusions from them.   I was not reading the text with any agenda, so felt no guilt about skimming sections which were very descriptive scientifically but which were of little interest to me personally.  Darwin was not particularly anti-religious in this book, though probably he was religiously indifferent.  He was a cultural Christian  which means in some ways he was also arelgious.  His understanding of Christianity seems to have been closely aligned with his Eurocentric and Anglocentric viewpoint.  He is not absolutely critical of religion and even defends it at times, especially when he sees it being useful to Europeanize aboriginal peoples around the world.  He would not be considered politically correct by modern standards.  Nor would his efforts to capture, kill and study animals be viewed as particularly conservationist or humane.   We can get a sense of his viewpoint on religion:

“On the whole, it appears to me that the morality and religion of the inhabitants are highly creditable. There are many who attack, even more acrimoniously than Kotzebue, both the missionaries, their system, and the effects produced by it. Such reasoners never compare the present state with that of the island only twenty years ago; nor even with that of Europe at this day; but they compare it with the high standard of Gospel perfection. They expect the missionaries to effect that which the Apostles themselves failed to do. Inasmuch as the condition of the people falls short of this high standard, blame is attached to the missionary, instead of credit for that which he has effected. They forget, or will not remember, that human sacrifices, and the power of an idolatrous priesthood–a system of profligacy unparalleled in any other part of the world–infanticide a consequence of that system–bloody wars, where the conquerors spared neither women nor children–that all these have been abolished; and that dishonesty, intemperance, and licentiousness have been greatly reduced by the introduction of Christianity. In a voyager to forget these things is base ingratitude; for should he chance to be at the point of shipwreck on some unknown coast, he will most devoutly pray that the lesson of the missionary may have extended thus far.”

Darwin’s own Christian upbringing had given him a sense of morality, and he could see in the aboriginal people violent behaviors which he found appalling, showing no mercy to women or children. We can note in Darwin’s comments his opposition to the aboriginal practice of infanticide – especially since we are this month also upholding the Sanctity of Human Life  and opposing a modern form of infanticide.

His observations of behavior and morality are not limited to aboriginal peoples.  Whereas he does see Christianity raising the moral standards of the aboriginal peoples, he is not hesitant to point out when Christianity has failed to positively affect the moral values of the European Christians.  He was totally opposed to the practice of slavery which he found dehumanized both owner and slave, but practiced throughout the New World.  He was physically disturbed by the practice of slavery in the Americas and found it so totally appalling that any humans would enslave another people.

“On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;–nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.  (Kindle Loc. 8551-66)

It is with his comments on slavery that he addresses the American nation of the 19th Century, and here we come around to why I connect Darwin’s diary to the Martin Luther King holiday.

Darwin made a clear and unequivocal challenge to America’s claim to love liberty and yet be so willing to enslave people.   It was for Darwin abhorrent and  completely hypocritical for men who claimed to be Christians to enslave others.

“Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;–what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children–those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own–being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder!

And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth!

It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.”   (Kindle Loc. 8572-78)

Darwin did think religiously when it came to the politics of slavery, and labeled it a sin.  He noted as did many Americans that slavery is a sin for which many have paid a heavy price.  So the great human, Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural speech:

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

What the Pure in Heart See

“ Let us therefore purify our hearts so that we may see God in nature, in ourselves, and in others. While we still are on the arduous path of purification, we must remind ourselves that God is in us and all around us. When we see nature let us be attentive to the message it speaks forth (Ps 19:1-4).

When we reflect on our own hearts, let us remember that the Holy Spirit dwells within us who are members of His body.  And when we see our neighbor, when we see those we meet each day, let us love them and honor them, remembering that they have been created in God’s image and have the potential, just like ourselves, to grow in His likeness. Let us remember the words of St. Macarius:

‘There is no other way to be saved, except through our neighbor… This is purity of heart: when you see the sinful or the sick, to feel compassion for them and to be tenderhearted toward them.’”

(David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 61-62)

The Sanctity of Human Life Sunday (2015)

Each year in January in the USA, we Orthodox join all other Americans who believe in the sanctity of human life to reaffirm our commitment to proclaiming all human life as being a sacred gift from God and thus deserving our protection.   We hold this truth to be self evident, that all humans are created equal even from their mother’s wombs.  All are deserving of a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We consider this a fundamental American vision for humanity.

As we remember that even in the womb, a human being is formed and loved by God, we can think about some words from St. Isaac  the Syrian who contemplates the mystery of God’s love.  God knows even before  a human being is born that that person will sin in their life time.  Nevertheless God’s desire for that person’s existence and God’s love for that person is not diminished.  God loves us even in the womb, even though we have never yet done any good thing, and even though He knows we will eventually sin against Him.  God’s love is not a reaction toward us, but rather what He wills for each of us when He calls us into being.   St. Isaac says:

“I kneel before Your Majesty and prostrate myself on the ground before You, O God, for without my having requested You or even having existed, You brought me into existence; and before You fashioned me in the womb You knew that (I would live) a full (life of) tumult and backsliding, yet You did not refrain from creating me and granting me all the attributes with which You have honored (human) nature, even though You knew beforehand my evils.  You are aware of my requests even before they become known to me, and of my prayers even before they have been prayed before You: grant to me, O my God at this hour whatever You are aware that my wretched nature needs in its present peril.  You are aware of my soul’s affliction, and in Your hands lies its healing.”   (ISAAC OF NINEVEH, THE SECOND PART, p 11)

Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America offers these words for this The Sanctity of Human Life Sunday (2015)

Dearly beloved,

Today has been designated by the Orthodox Church in America as “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” a day on which we re-affirm our faithfulness to the eternal value of human life and re-commit ourselves to the defense of the lives of the unborn, the infirm, the terminally ill and the condemned.

Our proclamation of life is offered in the context of a world in dismay at the terrorist attacks that recently shook Paris, the latest in a series of seemingly endless tragedies throughout the world that unnecessarily claim many innocent lives. Following this latest tragedy, Christians, Muslims, Jews and non-believers have engaged in discussion and debate about a range of issues, from human dignity to the responsibilities of political cartoonists, from freedom of expression to humanity’s capacity for tolerance. Unfortunately, much of this debate is framed in an atmosphere of ideological violence, whether this be a “war on infidels” or “war on terrorism.” In such divisive engagements, there are rarely any victors but only more victims.

As Orthodox Christians, who hold dear the revealed truth that the life of “all mankind” is sacred, we might reflect, along with St. Nikolai of Zhicha, on the paschal victory of Christ over death and corruption:

“Christ’s victory is the only victory in which all humanity can rejoice, from the first-created to the last. Every other victory on earth has divided, and still divides, men from one another. When an earthly king gains the victory over an another earthly king, one of them rejoices and the other laments. When a man is victorious over his neighbor, there is singing under one roof and weeping under the other. There is no joyful victory on earth that is not poisoned by malice: the ordinary, earthly victor rejoices both in his laughter and in the tears of his conquered enemy. He does not even notice how evil cuts through joy.”

Our world is so full of these joyless and dark victories that we might despair of being able to put forward the hope and light of the Gospel message. We would do well to heed the words of St. Nikolai and keep our hearts and minds focused on our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whom alone can solace, hope and joy be found in any meaningful and lasting way.

Indeed, Christ did not say: “I offer one of many complimentary paths”; He said: I am the Way. Christ did no say: “I hold to the correct philosophical principles;” He said: I am the Truth. Christ did not say: “I subscribe to the only viable political agenda;” He said: I am the Life.

It is only possible to attain to this Way, this Truth and this Life through Christ and through the light that He bestows to those who strive to allow even a small beam of that light to enter their hearts and illumine their path. As St. Nikolai writes: “Christ’s victory alone is like a sun that sheds bright rays on all that are beneath it. Christ’s victory alone fills all the souls of men with invincible joy. It alone is without malice or evil.”

Let us therefore make every effort to offer this “victory of light and life” to those who are surrounded by darkness and death. Let us be bold in our adding our Orthodox voices in support of the value of every human person, born or unborn; let us offer consolation to the mothers who have undergone abortions and offer our prayers to them and to all who have been affected by this tragedy; let us affirm our Orthodox understanding of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God and yet in need of healing in Christ.

Let us, together with St. Nikolai, proclaim the great victory of Christ:

A mysterious victory, you will say? It is; but it is at the same time revealed to the whole human race, the living and the dead.

A generous victory, you will say? It is, and more than generous. Is not a mother more than generous when she, not once or twice, saves her children from snakes but, in order to save them for all time, goes bravely into the snakes’ very nest and burns them out?

A healing victory, you will say? It is, healing and saving for ever and ever. This gentle victory saves men from every evil and makes them sinless and immortal. Immortality without sinlessness would mean only the extending of evil’s reign, and of that of malice and wickedness, but immortality with sinlessness gives birth to unconfined joy, and makes men the brethren of God’s resplendent angels.”

With love in the Lord,

Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

Awareness of God

St. Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) writes:

“Work with the Jesus Prayer.

May God bless you.

But with the habit of reciting this prayer orally, unite remembrance of the Lord, accompanied by fear and piety.

The principal thing is to walk before God, or under God’s eye, aware that God is looking at you, searching your soul and heart, seeing all that is there.

This awareness is the most powerful lever in the mechanism of the inner spiritual life.” (The Art of Prayer, pp 89-90)

The Faith and Gospel of St. Paul

A number of modern scholars have attempted to discredit Traditional Church teachings about Jesus Christ, especially those proclaimed in the Nicene Creed.  Their motivations and methods vary but these scholars often rely on documents that were marginalized by the early Church and by the Church through history.  These scholars  attempt to form an alternative history based on minority opinions or opinions which were rejected by the Church as being false or distortions.  Sometimes they distort the evidence by giving it greater priority or authority then those texts deserve or ever received in their own day.   NEW YORK TIMES columnist Ross Douthat points out that what puts a huge crimp in the speculation of modern scholars is the historical fact that St. Paul’s version of Christianity is in fact the oldest and most reliable witness we have from the early church.  And the theories of many modern scholars who reject Christian Tradition relies on discrediting the ideas of St. Paul.  Douthat writes:

“The inconvenient truth is that nearly all scholars identify the letters of Saint Paul as the oldest extant Christian documents, the earliest dating from the 50s A.D., two decades after the crucifixion. It’s possible to draw different conclusions from Paul’s Christology than later Church fathers did. But what would become basic premises of orthodoxy are clearly affirmed, while the basic premises of, say, the Gnostics or the Marcionites or the Ebionites or the hypothetical ‘Q Community’ are implicitly or explicitly ruled out. For Paul, Christian faith means worshipping Jesus Christ rather than just emulating him. It means regarding the crucifixion as an atonement for human sins. It means believing in a physical resurrection rather than some sort of ‘spiritual’ or psychological event. It means seeing Jesus’ life and death as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy as well as a witness to the Gentiles. It means celebrating the Eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s passion. It means…well, let Paul himself tell it:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (Bad Religion, p 164)

The Beauty of Light

And God said, ‘Let there be light.’  The first word of God created the nature of light, did away with the darkness, put an end to the gloom, brightened up the world, and bestowed upon all things in general a beautiful and pleasant appearance.

The heavens, so long buried in darkness, appeared, and their beauty was such as even yet our eyes bear witness to. The air was illuminated, or rather, it held the whole light completely permeating it, sending out dazzling rays in every direction to its uttermost bounds.

It reached upward even to the ether itself and the heavens, and in extent it illuminated in a swift moment of time all parts of the world, north and south and east and west. For, such is the nature of ether, so rare and transparent, that the light passing through it needs no interval of time. …

And the air is more pleasant after the light, and the waters brighter, since they not only admit but also return the brightness from themselves by the reflection of the light, the sparkling rays rebounding from all parts of the water. The divine word transformed all things into a most pleasing and excellent state. …

The Creator of all things, by His word instantly put the gracious gift of light in the world. …  ‘Let there be light.’  In truth, the command was itself the act, and a condition of nature was produced than which is not possible for human reasoning’s to conceive anything more delightfully enjoyable. …

But, if beauty in the body has its being from the symmetry of its parts with each other and from the appearance of beautiful color, how, in the case of light, which is simple in nature and similar in parts, is the idea of beauty preserved? Or, is it that the symmetry of light is not evinced in its individual parts but in the joy and pleasure at the visual impression?

In this way even gold is beautiful, which holds an attraction and pleasure for the sight, not from the symmetry of its parts, but from the beauty of its color alone. And the evening star is the most beautiful of the stars, not because the parts of which it was formed are proportionate, but because from it there falls upon our eyes a certain joyous and delightful brightness.

Then, too, the judgment of God concerning the goodness of light has been made, and He looks not wholly at the pleasure in the sight but also looks forward to the future advantage.

For, there were not yet eyes able to discern the beauty in light. ‘And God separated the light from the darkness.’ That is, God made their natures incapable of mixing and in opposition, one to the other. For, He divided and separated them with a very great distinction between them. …

The condition in the world before the creation of light was not night, but darkness.”   (Saint Basil, Exegetic Homilies, pp 31-33)


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