Awareness of God’s Presence

The sense of the presence of God.  Something I pray everyone I know may have.  I wish everyone in the world could have it.

In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they  lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener.  They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them.  And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking.  They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence.  They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator.    Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God.  Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything.  In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do.  They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise.  Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]

How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made?  And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God.   Amazing!  Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.

God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence.  When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power.   God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will.   Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example.   God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power.   The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits –  the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence!  Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.

If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation.  The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms.  In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices.  Just look at Genesis 2:19 –  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal.  God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates.  Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation.  [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians.  In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals.  Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be.  Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story.  God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done.  Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]

Adam naming the animals in Paradise

The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence.  We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example,  God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.

And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation.  Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence.  The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.

Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation.  The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.

In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion.  For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve.  We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation.  We can experience God directly and fully.  We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection.   Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father.  Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God.  We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Christ in our midst and Christ in us.  As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :

Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 8:13-19 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 8:13-19 (a)

Genesis 8:13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” 18 So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. 19 And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.

Some who question the literal value of the story ask how it was possible for Noah to travel the earth and collect species of all the animals.  He would have had to travel throughout the entire world including Australia,  the Artic, Antarctic, North and South America (of which the Bible never once even acknowledges its existence.  Remember in 1492 Columbus discovered a “new world”, one previously unknown to Jews and Christians).   He would have to have been able to build the ark while simultaneously hunting all the species of the animals throughout the world – the bible never mentions his absence from the ark building project while traveling the world.  He would have had to traverse the entire planet and transport species of all the animals of the world back to his ark.   He would have had to somehow keep the animals alive and tend to them while the ark was being built over the 100 year period which the story says he had to build the ark.  And then after the flood he would have had to get all these animals back to their proper habitats in every direction at the same time.   While all things are possible for God, Noah still had to operate within the laws of physics and the technology of his day.   The story stretches the limits of credulity which is why St. John Chrysostom warned his flock not to be overly rational about the story, but rather to look to the story for its spiritual lessons.  The lack of details about how Noah could have done all of the things necessary to capture, corral and keep alive every species of animal in the world gives us come indication that the narrative is not intended to be read so scientifically or in such a detailed way, but rather is a narrative about salvation.   The story is a prototypical story about a fallen world awash in sin and a God who continues to work to save some of His creation.   Despite the near total corruption and depravity of the human race, God still finds those He can save in order to perpetuate humankind.  God saves even animals in the story not just His favored human beings.  He saves the animals because they are supposed to serve humans.  The story argues that even when God is totally angry at us, when He is totally grieved by our sins and regrets having brought us into being, that His love trumps His anger, grief, regrets and judgment; He salvages His creation despite how evil humans can be.  There still is no mention of Satan in the Genesis story and nowhere does it blame Satan for the evil that humans do.   God has no opposite and equal.  The LORD is sovereign and all powerful and He is in constant warfare with the powers of darkness and chaos which want to overwhelm the earth.  But even these powers, such as the abyss, must obey God and accomplish God’s will.  Neither chaos, the abyss, nor evil are more powerful than the Lord God, nor do they have any rights over human beings.  Even when God uses the abyss to carry out His will, He still does not allow the abyss to totally overwhelm His creatures.  God provides and saves some even from the forces He is using for judgment.   The story is advocating for the goodness of God as Savior.

In the mid-2nd Century, St. Justin the Martyr (d.165) wrote the following comments on Noah.  He follows in the footsteps of St. Peter in his Epistle who looked beyond the literal reading of the story to its meaning as a prototype of baptism (1 Peter 3).   St. Justin wrote, “At the flood the mystery of the world’s salvation was at work.  The just man Noah, together with the other flood personages, namely, his wife, his three sons and their wives, made eight in number thereby symbolizing the eighth day on which our Christ was raised from the dead, that day being always implicitly the first, Christ, the first born of all creation, has become in a new sense the head of another race, regenerated by Him, through water, through faith, and through the wood which contained the mystery of the cross, just as Noah was saved through the wood of the Ark, carried by the waters of the flood… And I mean here those who receive preparation through water, faith, and wood escape the judgment of God that is to come.”  For St. Justin the story of the flood is a prototypical story that lays down a pattern of how God works so that we can recognize the work of God in Christ.  Noah is saved from death as Christ is and becomes the first new man of the new creation just as Christ is the new Adam and creates in us a new human race which lives not by the flesh but by the Spirit of God.  For St. Justin the full meaning of the Noah story cannot be fathomed until one understands Christ – only in seeing the fulfillment of the typology does one recognize the prophetic significance of the story. 

“So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him.  And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.”    There is no wild rush or chaotic stampede of  ‘cabin fevered’ animals to flee the confines of the ark.   What we have described here is a very orderly, solemn procession with each family of animals waiting their turn to join the recession from the ark.  Rather like a well organized Paschal procession emerging from the church building, the ark’s passengers emerge each walking with their own kind from the ark which was their tomb into a world cleansed of sin.  With reverence they disembark to enjoy their freedom, going out into the world to celebrate salvation – God’s triumph over sin and death.  This is exactly what we experience each Paschal midnight when we process out of the church into the creation renewed by Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the ultimate victory over sin and death.

The story of Noah and the ark is used by our Lord Jesus Christ as a prophetic story to prepare those of us still alive on earth to be prepared for the coming judgment of God. It is exactly what use we are to make of the story of the flood,     As it says in Deuteronomy 32:29:   “This nation has no sense whatever, they lack all discernment all sense were they wise they would realize what happened and learn for the future” (New Skete Translation).     We are to use the story of Noah and the ark to learn about the future.  If we turn the lesson of the ark into a test case for biblical literalism, we end up lacking discernment and learning nothing from the story to help us deal with the coming yet future Judgment of God.

Next:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 8:20-22 (a)

Theodicy II

Death being destroyed
Death being destroyed

This is the continuation and conclusion of my blog Theodicy.   I left off in the last blog commenting on how science and technology have given us a very different – truly global  – perspective on the world and how this has changed our understanding of evil.

So how do these changes in perspective or paradigm shape our understanding of Satan and of God?

It seems to me that one thing the modern worldview can actually embrace is that the power of Satan has been shattered.   A global view of the world enables us to foresee many natural events in the making and thus reduces our tendency to blame Satan for what is simply happening naturally on earth.   A global satellite view enables us to see human actions in the making as a result of human effort – not some sudden and surprising act of Satan.    We Orthodox sing that we now see the “devil’s delusion destroyed” in the Resurrection Tone 3 “Lord I Call” verses.

Sadly despite Christianity announcing the end of the Satan’s kingdom many in the Christian world still seem to fear nativity4aSatan as much as or even more than they fear God.  On the other hand the modern/scientific world simply scoffs evil into non-existence, and yet today even the most hardened atheists still speak about evil. We recognize it when we see it, even if we don’t attribute it to a personal power known as Satan.  The fact is by accepting a scientific paradigm we in effect diminish Satan’s power in the world; we realize he simply isn’t very powerful at all.

It also seems to me that our modern paradigm has the tendency to push us toward a more “deistic” understanding of God: We don’t want to attribute to or blame God for every natural disaster which indiscriminately kills the good and the evil. So we are more hard pressed how to account for all the “evil” that goes on in the world, except by ceding ever more power to Satan which is really the opposite of what our Orthodox hymns claims is happening in the world as a result of the resurrection of Christ.   Constantly blaming “Satan” for all the world’s problems really is a form of denying that the resurrection has made any difference in the world – for it says Satan/evil is as powerful if not more than ever.

St. John Chrysostom was writing at a time when Christianity was on the ascendency in the world. The Roman Empire (which they thought was the most powerful empire on earth and which they assumed controlled the civilized world) had embraced Christianity and so it seemed as if the Kingdom of God was in control of the world. Chrysostom could not imagine God allowing the Roman Empire to be defeated by a superior military power. In his commentary on the Psalms he actually notes that there was some spiritual advantage to the Jews being held in exile/captivity as they Arius1stEcumencame to rely on God instead of on human military power for survival and salvation. St. John seems to think his own flock’s faith is weak because they no longer know persecution and defeat. He is assuming however that it is a Christian emperor and Christian Empire which assures the peace which God’s kingdom brings.

Chrysostom assumes that the sign of God crushing Satan is the Empire’s embrace of Christianity. That God might cut asunder this marriage or allow the Empire to be crushed by another military power (and different religion!) seems beyond Chrysostom’s purview. Later Byzantines were utterly dismayed at the rise and success of Islam as they could not imagine God or the Theotokos abandoning their God protected empire. And yet Allah “out-generaled” the Theotokos and the God-loving Byzantine army and the God-protected Constantinople were defeated by armies following a foreign God and were swept away in history.

In all of this, I see Christianity (or maybe Christianity outside of Orthodoxy) as no longer looking to a national/imperial power to uphold the peace of God which comes through Christ. Islam on the other hand has not yet come to believe this. They still see military might and violence as a necessary means to attain the peace which Islam promises (they much more rely on earthly power to achieve what they think is God’s goals). Islam has not (in their own eyes at least) as of yet suffered such a catastrophic military defeat as to cause them to abandon the notion that imperial power is the way to establish God’s will on earth.

USAFOn the other side of this, it seems possible to me that increasingly Americans do believe military power is the way to defeat Satan on earth and thus Americans (especially conservative ones) think increased funding to the military is always correct. But one Byzantine Emperor (I think Justinian) boasted his armies would defeat Satan. We find that idea ludicrous, and yet in recent years America’s leadership used that same kind of language – our enemies are Evil, but our military will defeat Evil.

I am offering only a stream of consciousness here and not drawing any hardened conclusions.   We Christians face the task of explaining how if God is good and all powerful, and if Christ came destroying the power of death, evil and Satan, why is there still evil in the world?   Why do we attribute so much power and blame on Satan, when we also say in prayer that Satan doesn’t even have power over swine?

We would do well to make the Gospel stories central to our lives, proclamation and ministry to show the world how Christ makes a difference in history and in our lives.    In the baptismal exorcism, we spit toward Satan to show our fearless contempt of him – we treat him as the nothing he really is rather than magnifying him into the world’s second greatest power.

The All Powerful Self-emptying God

The question gets asked as to why if God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful) is there evil?

At least a partial answer is offered by John Polkinghorne  in his  THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST):

“I have suggested from a theological point of view the roles of chance and necessity should be seen as reflections of the twin gifts of freedom and reliability, bestowed on his creation by One who is both loving and faithful.   … God’s gift of ‘freedom’ to his creation is conveyed by his respect for the integrity of these processes.   …   The act of creation involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other, and there is a consequent kenosis of God’s omnipotence.  This curtailment of divine power is, of course, through self-limitation on his part … It arises from the logic of love, which requires the freedom of the beloved.”

What I get from Polkinghorne is specifically that God giving free will and freedom to His human creatures means God does accept a degree of chance in His creation.  Humans really do have choices to make with real consequences, and so what humans think, say and do, matters for all; we are shaping our future in the same way that the universe is expanding and forming its own boundaries.   God is not predetermining or predestining every decisions and action of every human being, and is allowing human decisions to shape history.  Humans are thus influencing the space time continuum. 

God gives humans freedom and free will and then freely chooses to circumscribe His own powers to relate to and work with the humans in His creation.  The incarnation is the main story of God’s self emptying (kenotic) love.  The Virgin Mary is Theotokos containing the uncontainable God in Her womb in an inexplicable mystery. 

Freedom and free will are the corollaries of love – you cannot have one without the other.  Thus for love and forgiveness to exist in the world, there has to be free will, and if there is free will there is the potential for evil.  This is the strange manner in which the self emptying and self limiting love of God allows evil to exist.  It is not that God wishes evil to exist, but His love is such that He allows His creatures to reject Him and to practice evil rather than destroying His creatures.  This is the mystery of the phrase, God is love.