To Know God is More Than Just to Think About God

He presented Himself to them living (Acts 1:3).

With these words, Luke is telling us that the fullness of time has come (Gal 4.4), that God’s promises have been fulfilled. Christ had to suffer, rise from the dead, ascend into the heavens, and resume His place at the right hand of the Father, in order to ensure the promise of their salvation; so that their deepest desires would not remain unfulfilled.

Thus Christ presented himself living in order to show his disciples that, if there was any point to their existence, it was precisely the vision of God: in seeing the living Christ. True communication with God is not simply thinking about God; neither is it a loving disposition toward Him. Instead, it is perfect knowledge of Him, a ‘grasping’ of God in the sense of taking possession of Him, making Him your own, having an experience of God as living. And that God is living means that I stand in relation to him as to life itself, a relationship in which the two of us – two lives, two activities, two persons – live and move together, in a process of mutual giving and receiving.

By saying that He presented Himself living, Luke is telling us that the aim of life is the vision of God: to see and enjoy the living God. Thus if I am unable to see God, or lay hold of Him, or win Him over; if I am unable to love God truly, with a love that is a true dynamic embrace, then God for me is not a living God: He is a dead God. And Luke’s words are consequently a testimony to the resurrection. In Christ, God became man, suffered, was buried, and rose from the grave – without ever ceasing to be the Son and Word of God – so that man might share in His divinity and thereby partake fully of true life.”

(Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 167-168)


The God We Teach?

George Washington apotheosisI’m not very in-tuned with pop culture somewhat made possible because I rarely ever watch TV and I avoid commercial radio.  That is one reason I so rarely comment in the blog on pop culture or even the news for that matter.  I was listening in my car to the local public radio station, WYSO, and head the following song, the lyrics of which intrigued me.  I am not offering the song as an example of current culture nor as the best of what is out there.  In my blogs I write about what I read and hear and think about.  Obviously along the way I encounter ideas with which I disagree or which represent a perspective quite different than my own.  But they sometimes capture my attention.

The lyrics below from Randy Newman’s “God Song” interested me because they struck me as being a caricature how crazy some claims of believers sound to the non-believer.  The song has God  amused, amazed, dismayed and distraught at what believers  are willing to believe.  Is this the God we teach?

God’s Song

Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

“Man means nothing he means less to me
than the lowliest cactus flower
or the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that’s where i’ll be
that’s why i love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why i love mankind”

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said “Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please please let us be?”

And the Lord said
And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities–how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why i love mankind
You really need me
That’s why i love mankind”

It may be that humanity is so pathetic and hopeless that it needs a god who abuses it.  But then we often use god to justify the evils we inflict on one another.  Many have killed and murdered in the name of god or convinced others to do so.

We turn god into an excuse for our evils.  We make god into an enslaved maid who must clean up our endless messes.  Our efforts to be systematic and logical about the divine mystery results in our justifying every pain and sorrow in the world and blaming this god for evil all in the name of logic.  To satisfy our own ideas, we create the god who cynically and tyrannically inflicts misery and in turn we theologically justify our own evilness.  Some how we make sense out of the world by creating wrathful and vicious demon who condemns all to hell on earth and then hereafter to an eternity of suffering.

For some reason the God who is love does not win our hearts and loyalty nor our desire to imitate Him.

We should however remember the Prophet Moses, that most humble friend of God (Exodus 33:11), always caught between the people who rejected his leadership and the God who demands that he leads.   Yet, Moses stood before the Lord, between God’s wrath and the people deserving punishment.  Moses says to God who is angry because of Israel’s sins and threatening destruction for all of Israel:

“But now, if You will forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray You, out of thy book which You have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

Never was Moses more like God than when he stood offering His life in exchange for the rebellious people.  Moses never wanted to be the leader of these people, but he fulfilled the role of leader in perfect love.  Moses wanted no salvation apart from the people who rejected him and rejected God!  As God fully reveals Himself in the New Testament, so Moses desires not the death of sinners, but life.  He lives not to judge and condemn sinners but to save them from destruction.

Moses faced this God whom he could not fully understand and demanded that God stay faithful to His love.

We see again in Christ the God who gives His life in love for the world.

There are so many things about God which are puzzling and mystery and we are called to be Moses and Christ and stand in love for God and our fellow humans to unite all.  This too is crazy, but it is far removed from the religion Randy Newman presents in “God’s Song.”

The craziness which Newman criticizes really is related to the supposed wisdom of those men who confronted Job in his suffering.  These men claimed a wisdom which always justifies God no matter what.  God condemns their wisdom and says they have not spoken correctly about Him (Job 42:7).  Our efforts to justify all that happens on God’s earth by distorting the will and nature of God to satisfy our logic are in the end rejected by God Himself.

To live according to God’s love is to take up the cross not the sword, to achieve greatness through humility and service, to love even one’s enemies, to lose one’s life in order to save it, to find riches through poverty.

In Matins (in the New Skete Prayerbook), we pray:

“Remember Lord: Your mercy is eternal.”

Moses reminded God of this truth, whether or not He needed that reminder. We too can be like Moses in attitude and prayer.  In doing so we will truly be like Christ, who is God.

Prayer: Conversing with God

This is the 34th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Intercessory Prayer (IV).

While prayer is in the popular mind sometimes reduced to presenting to God a “honey-do” list of wants and needs that we hope the Lord will complete ASAP, the beginning of this series we have seen how prayer is much more our establishing and growing in our relationship to God than asking things from God.  We stand in His presence, and even when there are no words involved, we are conversing with our Creator.

“The day when God is absent, when he is silent – that is the beginning of prayer.  Not when we have a lot to say, but when we say to God ‘I can’t live without you, why are you so cruel, so silent?’  … If we listen to what our hearts know of love and longing and are never afraid of despair, we find that victory is always there the other side of it.

And there is that time when there is a longing in the heart for God himself, not for his gifts, but for God himself. … There is longing for home, but a home that has no geography, home where there is love, depth and life.” (Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp xvii-xviii)

Standing in God’s presence and conversing with God both move us from just wanting what He might give us to wanting most of all a relationship with Him.  No longer do we value the gifts more than the Giver of the gifts.  The relationship with Him is what we desire and really need.  As St. John writes in his Gospel:

“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”  (17:3)

We are transformed in prayer from knowing about God to knowing God.  Our inner life and self is formed by prayer so that we come to realize and fulfill our relationship to our Lord, God and Creator.  Though His gifts in this world are a joy and a blessing, we also are seeking that which is eternal and not just temporal.  The relationship with God continues beyond death (Romans 8:38-39 and Romans 14:8).

“Especially important is pure prayer – prayer which is unceasing and uninterrupted. Such prayer is a safe fortress, a sheltered harbor, a protector of virtues, a destroyer of passions. It brings vigor to the soul, purifies the intellect, gives rest to those who suffer, consoles those who mourn. Prayer is converse with God, contemplation of the invisible, the angelic mode of life, a stimulus towards the divine, the assurance of things longed for, ‘making real the things for which we hope’ (Heb. 11:1).”   (St Theodoros the Great, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11051-61)

Prayer indeed lifts us to heaven because it places us in God’s presence.  Prayer is powerful indeed because through prayer we enter into the divine life which the incarnate Christ has offered to us (2 Peter 1:4).

“You may judge how great the power of prayer is even in a sinful person, when it is offered wholeheartedly, by the following example from holy tradition. When at the request of a desperate mother who had been deprived by death of her only son, a harlot whom she chanced to meet, still unclean from her last sin, and who was touched by the mother’s deep sorrow, cried to the LORD: ‘Not for the sake of a wretched sinner like me, but for the sake of the tears of a mother sorrowing for her son and firmly trusting in thy loving kindness and thine almighty power, Christ God, raise up her son, O LORD!’ And the LORD raised him up. (From the life of St. Theodore of Edessa.) “  (St. Seraphim of Sarov, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church , kindle Loc. 3820-25)

It is not we who have the power of prayer  but rather the Holy Spirit in us.  And that power is, at least obviously from the above story, not the result of our personal holiness.  True and pure prayer can come even from a sinner who humbly seeks the mercy of God.  A heart truly moved by compassion is one which is close to the heart of God.

Next:  Prayer: Conversing with God (II)

Augustine: Creation’s Witness to God

St. Augustine commenting on Romans 1:19-20 echoes St. Paul’s claim that nature itself is a witness to God and God’s love for His creation.  Augustine writes:

“How did they know God? From the things that God made.

Ask the beauty of the  earth;

ask the beauty of the sea;

ask the beauty of the swelling, spreading air;

ask the  beauty of the heavens;

ask the order of the stars;

NASA Hubble Photo

ask the sun illumining the day with its  brightness;

ask the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its splendor;

ask the living things moving in the waters,

moving on the earth,

flying in the air;

ask their observable bodies and hidden souls, the visible guided and the invisible guiding  things.

Question these, and they will all answer you: “Behold, we are beautiful.”

Their  beauty is itself their confession.

Who made all these beautiful, changing things, then, if  not the one who is unchangeably beautiful?”

( St. Augustine  in  Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, ed. J. Patout Burns Jr., Kindle Loc. 822-26)

See also In Praise of God our Creator and Chrysostom: Creation’s Witness to God

You can find links to all my photo blogs at My Photo Blogs.

Christian Education in the 21st Century

Ss Athanasius, Cyril & Ignatius

This is the 8th and final blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (C).

By looking at some of the patristic writers we can glean a few ideas or ideals which they held concerning Christian education. Christianity came into a world which was on the verge of great change and Christianity itself was to be a catalyst to that change. The religious world view was about to shift from what has been described by historians of religion as an archaic perspective to an historic one. This followed the axial period of religious development which had occurred some 500 years before the birth of Christ. This shift in perspective is not unlike the one in which (at least according to some interpreters of culture) we are currently experiencing (the shift from what has been termed the modern world view to what is being called post-modern is for some the new axial age). The early Christians were able to distinguish a theology of education with specific goals and methods which were different from that of the pagan world which surrounded them.    This is something which we must continue to do today in the changing world in which we live.

The Patristic period resisted a mass approach to education, rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Instead they emphasized the need to shape the educational endeavor to the individual needs and capabilities of their varied students.    Though their methodology focused on holiness and wisdom (a practical and practiced approach to Christian education), the bottom line goal was to know God.  A good amount of the training was practical, experiential, taught in the forum of a few disciples learning from their Master (even when it was children learning from their Christian parents).  Learning from example, imitation of the Lord and of the Saints, role modeling, and learning virtuous living from the lives of the saints (story telling), were all used to help attain the goal.

The task for Orthodox religious educators today remains discerning what are the methods, goals and underlying theology which we need as we face the Twenty-First Century. What can we learn from the early centuries of Christianity which will help us in our current situation? This means not simply imitating their methods but gaining the wisdom to know which methods to use today at the appropriate times, and also determining when creative solutions are called for.

This blog is based upon an article I wrote in 1998 which itself consisted of a few excerpts from a much longer paper I wrote on Christian education years earlier.  I hope in the near future to be able to “translate” this longer manuscript into a blog series.  Blog bytes are more digestible to most than long articles.  Bullet points might be even more acceptable to a greater number of people but I haven’t learned Power Point to be able to reduce all information to that level.

The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church

Ss Athanasius, Cyril, Ignatius

This blog series focuses on educational goals which can be gleaned from some of the writings of the ancient church.   I originally wrote this in 1998, and it has pretty much sat in my computer’s memory unread since then.  I decided it was time to bring it up out from under the bushel and see if it provides any light.

Though no one Church Father wrote a theology of Christian education, many Patristic writers were both involved in and concerned about the educational practices of the Church.   The early Church was very involved in catechesis and other forms of education by which the Faith was handed over to the new generation of believers.  This paper is a brief look at the writings of a few early Church fathers who directed some of their comments to the teaching ministry of the Church.

Christianity emerged into the religious and educational world of First Century Pales­tine.   The values of that era and ar­ea of the world were shaped by the Jews and their conquerors, specifically­ the Greeks and Romans. Naturally, the early Church’s vision for education was shap­ed by and against the culture into which she emerged.

Christ’s teaching method was that of the Master with his disciples, which had its roots in the Jewish rabbinical ex­perience.  The Master trained his disciples to be like himself   (Mark 10:24-25).    This Master and disciple relationship would shape the later monastic experience as well.  The Master-disciple methodology is one normative means by which the early Christians also trained their converts and children.

Christianity did not long remain a purely Jewish phenom­enon.  It quickly spread among the Hellenic Jews and pagans as well.  This inter­action wi­th other cultures challenged the first Christ­ians to move beyond a limited, parochial and Jewish cul­tural viewpoint.  It is beyond the scope of this text to examine this cultural interaction.  However, it is impor­tant to rememb­er that Ch­rist­ianity had different goals from those of Greco-Roman pagan religions.  The Christian Vision of their mission guided and shaped their educational ministry.

Greek philoso­phy in the Roman form “concerned itself chiefly with life in this world.  The problem that it attempted to solve was how one should live so as to get the most satisfaction out of life” (Frank Groves, A History of Education, p. 281).   Education for pagans assumed that life was an end in itself.  Christianity, on the other hand was concerned more with transfiguring this life and with attaining the Kingdom of God which was both here and yet to come.  The Church concerned her­self with teaching the way of life needed for a soul to attain salvation.    The early Christ­ian Patristic writers always focused

Theology: Mother of All Sciences

their teaching on Christ­ianity as a way of life. (Frank Groves, A History of Education, p. 279-280).      They did not teach the facts of salvation history apart from an experience of the Holy Trinity.  Their main focus was:  KNOW GOD!  A Christian lives his or her theology daily.  The “know­ledge” to be acquired by Christians was an experience of the revealed truth of God.  This truth was available to all in the doctrine, worship and sacra­ments of the Faith.  Early Christian teachers believed the revealed truth of God was en­countered in life itself, especially in the life of the Christian com­munity – the people of God.  Consequently they, for the most part, did not set up for themselves special schools  (H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, p. 317).   Life within the Christian community – in its worship and charity – was the school for the first Christians (see Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35).  The lesson of Ananias and Sapphira Acts 5:1-11 is recorded as a communal lesson – one never to be forgotten and hopefully never to be repeated!

Next:  A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer

Truth is Not an Emotion

“When we are faced with the temptation of reducing our inner life to the level of intellect and emotions, as if the true spiritual life which is union with God were no more than deception, we need to hear the word: ‘And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God’ (Jn 17:3). This knowledge, or enlightenment, is the purpose of life. Light and truth constitute an inseparable pair, for we cannot find the way without light. Christ is the ‘Light’ and the ‘Way’, but in his freedom, man chooses between light, which requires a sustained effort, and darkness. St.Symeon the New Theologian expressed the heart of the problem in these terms: ‘He who is blind to the One is completely blind to all things. But he who sees the One is able to contemplate the whole.’ “ (Michel Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, pg 222)

Loving God means Entering into Communion with Him

 “He who loves God consciously in his heart is known by God, for to the degree that he receives the love of God consciously in his soul, he truly enters into God’s love. From that time on, such a man never loses an intense longing for the illumination of spiritual knowledge, until he senses its strength in his bones and no longer knows himself, but is completely transformed by the love of God. He is both present in this life and not present in it; still dwelling in the body, he yet  departs from it, as through love he ceaselessly journeys towards God in his soul. His heart now burns constantly with the fire of love and clings to God with an irresistible longing, since he has once and for all transcended self-love in his love for God. As St. Paul writes: ‘If we go out of ourselves, it is because of God; if we are restrained, it is for your sake’ (2 Cor. 5:13)

When a man begins to perceive the love of God in all its richness, he begins also to love his neighbor with spiritual  perception. This is the love of which all the scriptures speak. Friendship after the flesh is very easily destroyed on some slight pretext, since it is not held firm by spiritual perception. But when a person is spiritually awakened, even if something irritates him, the bond of love is not dissolved; rekindling himself with the warmth of the love of God, he quickly recovers himself and with great joy seeks his neighbor’s love, even though he has been gravely wronged or insulted by him. For the sweetness of God completely consumes the bitterness of the quarrel.

No one can love God consciously in his heart unless he has first feared Him with all his heart. Through the action of fear the soul is purified and, as it were, made malleable and so it becomes awakened to the action of love.”    (St. Diadochos of Photiki, The Philokalia, VOL 1, pgs. 256-257)

The Knowledge and Vision of God

“The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this – in seeing that God is invisible, because what we see lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility…What is the significance of the fact that Moses went right into the darkness and saw God there?  At first sight, the account of this vision of God seems to contradict the earlier one. For whereas on that occasion the divine was seen in light, this time the divine is seen in darkness. But we should not regard this as involving any inconsistency at the level of the mystical meaning which concerns us. Through it the Word is teaching us that in the initial stages religious knowledge comes to people as illumination. So what we recognize as contrary to religion is darkness, and escape from that darkness is achieved by participation in the light. From there the mind moves forward; by its ever-increasing and more perfect attention it forms an idea of the apprehension of reality. The closer it approaches the vision of God, the more it recognizes the invisible character of the divine nature.”    (St. Gregory of Nyssa, quoted in John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers, pgs.72-73)

God Questions His Creation: An After Word

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (d)

Genesis opens with words of grandeur and mystery:  “In the beginning, God…”  God creating the heavens and earth is the beginning of space and time which are necessary for our own existence.   Genesis does not begin offering insights into this God apart from His creating and His creation; despite God’s revelation of Himself, He remains a mystery to us, with His essence beyond our capability of knowing.  (Fifth Century Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus postulates that Genesis does not begin with dogmatics because the ancient Israelites were not yet ready to understand the depths of such revelation and rather needed to learn about the Creator to refute the false worship of creation the Jews were coming to accept from the Egyptians at the time of Moses who is credited with writing the story). 

The story of God for us commences not in eternity but in His self-revelation in time and space.  We in fact can know nothing about God apart from creation:  all that we can know about God is known by us (mediated) through created things (including ourselves!).   When God chose to reveal Himself, He created that which is “not God,” that to which He can reveal Himself.  God’s initial action inaugurating creation is to speak His Word, and in doing so light comes into existence.  God’s spoken work is all about illumination and revelation, making it possible for those with eyes to see.  God brings forth life, which is to say “not God” into being, and also empowers this “not God” with the ability to perpetuate itself through procreation.  That which is “not God”, creation,  shares in the life of God and the life-givingness of God.  We create and procreate because God shared Himself with His creation.

While we logically read the Genesis story as the beginning of our story as human guests on God’s earth starting with verse 1:1, experientially the story of Genesis begins for us in its last line: “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt”  (Genesis 50:26).  This last line of Genesis causes us to stop and ask, “Why do we die?  How did we humans created to live in Paradise, ever get to this point of lying dead in a coffin in Egypt?”  We started with God creating the heavens and the earth.  We started with God breathing His breathe into dust and forming a living being.  How did humans created in God’s image and likeness, placed in a perfect garden whose landscape architect and maker is of God, created by God to have dominion over the entire world, chosen by God to be His people and doers of His will, ever end up subject to mortality and lying dead in a coffin in the foreign land of Egypt?  Why aren’t we living in a perfect world, in which God clearly reigns over all, and in which humans are clearly regents over every other form of life on earth?  Why aren’t we living in paradise or at least the Promised Land?    The answer to that question is exactly what the Book of Genesis is about. 

Genesis is our spiritual sojourn to discover how we became the beings we humans are.  More than a historical accounting, Genesis is a spiritual sojourn – the unfolding of human interaction with God and with creation.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, sums it up this way:  “The book (Genesis) commences with, ‘In the beginning God created…’ and ends with the words, ‘…in a coffin in Egypt.’  These first and last words of the First Book of Moses, Genesis, are in themselves a summary of man’s spiritual history, for God is ever saving and man is ever falling; God is ever delivering and man is ever becoming enslaved; God is ever giving life and man is ever choosing death.”  (TCAF, p. 3).

We read Genesis to understand our human condition, our human nature, our human plight, and our common human experience.  We read Genesis to experience God’s role in the world in order for this to be the foundation for our faith in God and our hope in the future.  We read Genesis to understand Jesus Christ.   We read the first book of the Bible to learn how to live in this world with faith and hope, and to prepare ourselves for life in the world to come.  Genesis is thus much more about our present and our hoped for future than it is about the past.  “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  We read Genesis not so much to discover the past, which we cannot change, but to prepare for the future – for the eschaton which we change by our choices now.

I conclude with the same words with which I ended QUESTIONING GOD“We could say more but could never say enough; let the final word be: ‘He is the all.’” (Sirach 43:27, NAB)

God Questions His Creation: Glossary

God Questions His Creation: Bibliography