Orthodoxy in the World: Liturgical Worship

This is the 15th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.   The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Key Practices (C).

Orthodoxy tends to view the Christian life not as some juridical way to salvation through obedience to law, but rather a way of love through self-denial, in order to re-establish the relationships in the world which were destroyed by human sin.   In Eastern Christian piety Christ is more the victor over death, than the victim of justice.

            The liturgical worship of the church is  essential to all Orthodox Christians, for in this worship we experience community (humanity in relationship to others), the natural life-giving goodness of the created physical world, and the divine love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.    In this worship we experience ourselves as relational beings, the very way in which we were created by God.   We come face to face with how evil in the world is real –  sin causing separation which is death (physical and spiritual).   In worship we also experience the  victory of Christ over all forms of separation and death.  In worship we realize our soul is not in opposition to our body, but rather for humans we experience the spiritual life through the physical body.    We experience the life-giving sacraments which unite us to God.  We see the Icons, that particularly Orthodox art form in which lines and colors are used to reveal the truth of the incarnation of God and the deification of humanity.   In Orthodoxy salvation is union with God, Theosis.      Union with God  occurs not in some future heaven, nor merely in the human mind, but rather is  both  restoration of the wholeness of the human being (body, soul and spirit) and the transfiguration of this life and the created human.   Salvation itself is not some juridical overcoming of broken laws so that justice is restored, but is rather the transformation of the separated and broken human being into a relational being in love with God and neighbor.

Nativity of Christ

Next:   Orthodoxy in Relationship to the World

Orthodoxy in the World: Key Practices (B)

This is the 13th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.   The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Key Practices (A).

The Orthodox tended to focus on love as the highest good, and saw Christ’s teachings as primarily a reaction against the world’s desire for human justice.  The questions presented to Christ,  “Who is my neighbor?” or “how many times do I have to forgive my brother?” or about tithing, are viewed as questions of justice which try to quantify love and thus limit it.   But the Gospel love of Christ is not limited by a human sense of justice –  love even your enemies, give expecting nothing in return, sell all you have and give it away, forgive without constraint if you want to be forgiven, give to those who cannot repay and to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters not to those most important or influential or who will offer handsome rewards.   The emphasis is not on sacrifice in order to suffer like Christ suffered, but rather to sacrifice in order to love others like Christ love us.

            The Orthodox tended to view Eve and Adam’s sin as one of selfish rebellion against God.  The antidote to this rebellion being to find a way to submit your own selfish will to the loving will of God.   Fasting was seen as the corrective for Eve’s own taking of the forbidden fruit in the garden when there was only one rule from God.   Learning to distrust one’s own desires and emotions because they are selfish was to be accomplished by forcing oneself for the sake of love to consider the good of the other first.  This was often advocated through some form of obedience to others –  one’s parents, one’s spouse, one’s priest or bishop or spiritual father or confessor.

            The way to see the world as it was originally intended by God to be –  life-giving and a way to further inter-communion and loving relationships – was offered to the faithful in and through the liturgical and sacramental life.   In worship, at least according to the Orthodox, people best experience the loving life between the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  In worship, humans learn again of their unique role between God and the rest of the created order.  For in worship the humans acknowledge that they are in fact not God, and they experience an equality of all humans as they stand in relationship to the Holy Trinity.   In worship, the created and physical world also is restored to its proper life-giving role.   Water becomes life-giving, taking away sin, washing one’s eyes so that they can see again, and cleansing one’s soul so that one can again experience the divine life.    Bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ – a food that is not dead or dying like the meat and cooked vegetables we eat – but now capable of putting us in communion with God and giving us eternal life.   In worship we overcome our self-centered thinking by listening to the word of God in community, realizing that we as people need a common understanding of God’s will in order for us to truly love one another.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Key Practices (C)

Orthodoxy in the World: Teachings (C)

This is the 11th blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is  Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World. This blog continues the section on basic teachings of Orthodoxy, the previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (B).

 Humans are created in the image and likeness of God.   But what do we know about this God?    The Orthodox believe the basic revelation about God is a self revelation –  it is what God has chosen to reveal to us, and while what can be known about God is revealed in creation itself, it is made most clear through the scriptures, but specifically the scriptures as revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

            The most basic claim of the Orthodox is that God is love.   Since, in Orthodoxy love always is other oriented, it is natural that God should also be Creator.  God calls into existence others whom He can love.  But since God is love, the Orthodox believe this basically means God is not a monad.  God does not engage in self-love, but always is love.   How is it possible for God to be love if He existed before there was anything else to love?    The answer to this question is found, so the Orthodox believe, in what Jesus Christ revealed about God, namely, God is a Trinity of co-equal divine Persons (thus “God is love” means God is a relational being).   Orthodoxy believes the witness of Christ and the scriptures is that God (divinity) exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Officially in theological terms there is one divine nature (monotheism) which exists in the three persons of the Trinity.     Each of the persons of the Trinity completely shares in the divine nature of love.  Whatever makes the Father God also makes the Son and Sprit to be God.   The three persons of the Trinity are true personal beings and relate to each other and to creation.  

            Each of the persons of the Trinity is unique and not confused with the others.   The Father is the source of all things including the divine nature.  The Son is begotten by the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father.   God the Son has the unique role of becoming incarnate.  He became flesh (not just indwelling in it, but actually becoming flesh).    This is the witness of the Gospel of John which says “the word became flesh.”    This is exactly what the Christians argued and debated in the first several hundred years of the Church’s existence:  Who is Christ?   What is the implication of the answer to this question for our understanding of God and humanity?

            Jesus Christ is understood in Orthodoxy as being the Word of God.  Thus in Him is found the true understanding of scriptures and God’s revelation.    And what God has revealed in Christ is that God is Trinity and God is love.  What has also been revealed is that humanity – creation itself – is fully capable of union with God.   Whatever role sin played in separating humans from God, that separation has been overcome in Jesus Christ.  Whatever role death has in separating humans from God or each other, this too has been overcome in Jesus Christ.   In whatever way God became unknowable to humans, Jesus Christ has overcome that division both revealing God to us and reuniting us to God.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World:  Teachings (D)

Further Reflections on Reading Scripture

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is Reading the Scriptures: Practical Ideas.

“….Soren Kierkegaard suggested that the Bible be read like love letters.  People read them over and over  and read between the lines.  Love letters, he said, are really understood only by the recipient of the letters, who stands in a loving relationship with the writer.”   (David Ewert, HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE, p 30)

The Scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who also reveals the God who is love as Trinity.    As St. Paul writes, “God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).     Thus the Bible is indeed a treasury, containing the written record of God’s revelation to the world and pointing to Jesus Christ.  Because of the depth of the riches of the Scripture, it is necessary for us develop a broad approach to them in order to allow them to speak to us in all their depth and diversity.  We are encountering the living God through them, and so should not limit our approach to them to our preferred method for reading them.  God choose diverse people to record the Scriptures, and inspired a multitude of literary styles to convey His revelation to the world.  The Scriptures are meant to instruct us, inspire us, challenge us, comfort us, correct us, train us in righteousness, and equip us for every good work (1 Timothy 3:16-17).  They are meant to reveal “the fullness of God” (Colossians 1:19), not the limits of human reason and logic.

“There is tremendous interpretive pressure to raise the valleys and lower the hills, to make the way straight and level before the reader.  But a reading faithful to this book, at least, should try to describe the territory with all its bumps and clefts, for they are not merely flaws, but the essence of the landscape.” (Charles Melchert, WISE TEACHING, p 15)

If we always endeavor to make the Scriptures an easy read by constantly endeavoring to smooth over difficult passages or contradictions found in the Bible, we risk changing God’s Word to conform to our ideas of logic rather than wrestling with the text to discover the messages that God has placed there, sometimes hidden for us to seek and discover.   “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).  To eliminate the inner conflicts and contradictions of Scriptures is to try to force them to conform to human logic, rather than allowing God’s wisdom which surpasses all understanding to speak to us.   

If we find that God always agrees with the way we think, we may in fact be worshipping a false god who we have created to agree with us!   God’s Word challenges human logic and wisdom, and judges us when we fail to submit to God’s ideas, especially when they challenge or confront our own.

“There is a certain inevitable inconstancy and lack of precision inherent in human language, which persists even in Holy Scripture, so that the expression of Divine truth in words is only possible within set limits.  The Staretz believed that the way to apprehend the Word of God lay in the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments.  This was the Lord’s own teaching (John 7:15-17).”  (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 92)

 If we read only those passages of Scripture with which we agree or like, then we end up listening not to God but to ourselves.   Scriptures, if they are truly God’s Word, should not only comfort us, but at times surprise us, startle us, confront us, challenge us, fashion us, and form us by the power of God.

“How then shall we know if Christ is in us, and how should we examine ourselves?  By recounting the oracles of the divine Scriptures and placing them before our souls like mirrors, by these we shall judge our whole selves.”  (St. Symeon the New Theologian, ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE  Vol 1, p 153-154)

We are to measure ourselves against the teachings of the Scriptures, not judge the Scriptures by how well they conform to or confirm our own ideas!

“…just as those under the impulse of hunger hurry to food with unheard of enthusiasm, and those burning with great thirst come to drink with alacrity, in just the same way ought we, like people starving and thirsting, come to spiritual instruction.”  (St. John Chrysostom, HOMILIES ON GENESIS 18-45, p 105)

We are to thirst for truth, and hunger for righteousness, as the very cause and basis for our reading the Bible in the first place.

“…if we turn to the constant meditation on Scripture, if we lift up our memory to the things of the spirit, to the longing for perfection and to the hope of future blessedness, then the thoughts deriving from all this will of necessity be spiritual and they will hold the mind where the thoughts have been.” (St. John Cassian, CONFERENCES, p 52)

“’The sacred writers of the Old and New Testaments, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, authored books,‘ said a certain elder.  “The Fathers took care to apply the writings in their lives.  The next generation knew them by heart.  But those of modern times have copied them and shut them away in libraries.’”   (THE ANCIENT FATHERS OF THE DESERT, p 33)

We are to let the Scriptures be written on our hearts, to be formed by them, rather than to treat them as a book which must never be opened because it is too sacred and we are too unworthy.

Next:   Scriptures and Tradition

Original Sin: The Allure of Death

This is the second blog in a series based upon my reading of Alan Jacobs’ book, ORIGINAL SIN.    The first blog is How Original Sin Impacts Christianity.  In that blog, we see Genesis not teaching “original sin” as some inherited sin and guilt which controls human.  Rather, God finds Himself having to deal with a humans whose hearts are inclined to wickedness: no explanation is offered as to why, it is an accepted given.  God attempts to drown wickedness out of humanity in the Flood story, but this effort fails, so a new plan of action is adopted by the Lord.

God gives His chosen people Torah, as a means for them to choose and embrace goodness themselves.   This too does not rid the people of wickedness or of disbelief.  In fact, the history of the Jews as recorded in scriptures is a fairly dismal history of failure to keep the Law by the leadership and by the people.  The miracle is that despite all failure, they kept a sense of being a people, and of being a people of the Law.

Then God sends His Son into the world, which comes as a surprise to all.  The incarnate God takes on the human heart, inclined toward wickedness, and the human body with its mortal nature.  God brings about a new union between Divinity and humanity.

This is what stops the Pharisee Saul in his tracks, resulting in him rethinking the whole relationship of himself and the chosen people to God.  Maybe it is not mere obedience that God is demanding from us.  The issue is to be faithful to God, directed toward God, even when our hearts incline toward wickedness constantly.  God is not demanding that we be robots perfectly grinding out each predetermined motion.  God wants us to work on our hearts, to love, to resist the ways in which mortality and sin pull us away from Him.  It is almost as if we are attracted to mortality, as if it has a power to draw us away from God, and in that distorted sense we use our free will to prove our freedom by showing God we are not His automatons and we can act freely and independently of Him.  Bizarrely, the logic is that death proves we are free beings – freed of the domination of God. Thus by a strange rationalization, death causes us to sin, as the sure means to exert our freedom from God’s dominion: if we die it proves we are free from God’s control!

“This is how many Greek theologians read Paul’s Greek (in Romans 5:12):  ‘As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned.” (p 55, note)

While all of this makes sense of Adam, and of Christ, it really is a description of the human condition rather than a prescription.    There still is at work in humanity, deep in our hearts, an attraction toward wickedness, which is acknowledged by the incarnate Son of God.  For Jesus taught:

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).

It is the Orthodox interpretation of Paul in Romans 5:12, “that because of death, all men have sinned,” which leads the Orthodox especially to see the final enemy of humankind as death, not sin.  It is death, mortality, which has lured humanity into its grasp, and which holds humanity captive.  Satan’s deception is in telling Eve that disobeying God will not lead to death, but it does.  The humans are willing to deceive themselves into believing that disobedience to God is freedom and will not lead to mortality. Death is our captor and jailor.  It is Christ who sets us free from this imprisonment to sin, death, and self.

The problem with some of the thinking on “original sin” is that first it reduces sin to a juridical failure to keep the law, whereas the original problem is that humans chose death over God.  Our ancestral sin is not mere disobeying a commandment but making a choice between God and death, and choosing death as the preferred path.   The lesson of Adam and Eve is their, and as prototypes of humanity, thus our willfully choosing something other than God.  Not only do we not choose something good or beautiful, but something destructive and evil: it is a total failure for humans to love and to be in the image of the Trinity of Beings which is the God who is love.

Jacobs’ book is no doubt a fair assessment of how Western Christianity came to allow a particular interpretation of “original sin” not just to be an explanation of what causes human behavior, but to dominate our thinking about what it is to be human.  The history of Western Christian thinking as shaped by “original sin” can be seen in three sample quotes from the book:

“If we cannot understand how humanity got from innocence to experience, from obedience to rebellion, from fellowship with God to alienation from him, we certainly cannot imagine our way back into that aboriginal state.”  (p 44)

 “From time to time in Western history, a vision of the greatness of human moral potential emerges or arises, only to find an immediate counter in an equally potent and vivid picture of human bondage to the sin we all inherit from Adam.” (p 127)

“What remains – and this is the chief task of his (Jonathan Edwards)  long book—is to argue that ‘the great Christian doctrine of original sin’ is the best explanation for this ‘apparent and acknowledged  fact’ of human ‘ruin.’”  (p138)

Next:  Freeing the Theological Mind from the Effects of Original Sin

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

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

Genesis 11:10 These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arpach’shad two years after the flood; 11 and Shem lived after the birth of Arpach’shad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 12 When Arpach’shad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; 13 and Arpach’shad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred and three years, and had other sons and daughters. 14 When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber; 15 and Shelah lived after the birth of Eber four hundred and three years, and had other sons and daughters. 16 When Eber had lived thirty-four years, he became the father of Peleg; 17 and Eber lived after the birth of Peleg four hundred and thirty years, and had other sons and daughters. 18 When Peleg had lived thirty years, he became the father of Re’u; 19 and Peleg lived after the birth of Re’u two hundred and nine years, and had other sons and daughters. 20 When Re’u had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; 21 and Re’u lived after the birth of Serug two hundred and seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 22 When Serug had lived thirty years, he became the father of Nahor; 23 and Serug lived after the birth of Nahor two hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. 24 When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; 25 and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah a hundred and nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 26 When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chalde’ans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sar’ai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sar’ai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chalde’ans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

When we read the genealogy in the Gospel According to St. Matthew (1:1-25) on the Sunday before Christmas, we might be tempted as Christians to say that in that whole list of births, there is only one birth that really matters – the Nativity of Jesus Christ. That narrow thinking would certainly miss the point of the scriptural text.  The very reason all those names are preserved in Scripture is to show that all the births mattered, even those of nefarious characters, because they each were an essential birth in the history of humanity that led to the nativity of the Savior.  In fact all the births are of the utmost importance as the birth of Christ would not have occurred without this exact history unfolding as it did.  Of course in Orthodoxy, though Matthew’s genealogy traces Joseph’s ancestors, it really is the genealogy of Mary the Theotokos which is of genetic and human significance for the incarnate Word of God.  All the births in the Scriptural genealogies are thus essential and matter for the salvation of the world.  Furthermore in Christian thinking, the birth of every human since the time of Christ also is significant for the life of the world.  No human ever conceived is inconsequential to the world, every single human conceived and ever human who is born matters to God and to the people of God.

Genealogies remind us that each of us, every human being is born into a world which already exists, and is born in relationship to other human beings.  We are by nature relational beings.  Genealogies place each human in the context of humanity; giving each person a history and a place in the social order.  They also serve the purpose of reminding us that in biblical terms, as relational beings, we are beings of love (where love is always directed toward the “other” and is not directed toward self interest).   The Scriptures testify that God is love (1 John 4:8,16).  For Christians this also refers directly to the fact that God is Trinity – a Trinity of Persons who dwell in love and whose relationship with one another is love.  For humans true love then is not an emotion but an encounter with God (and in Orthodoxy we always encounter one of the Persons of the Trinity, never God-in-general).   God as Trinity is a relational being and we who are created in His image and likeness are created as relational beings, created to be in God’s image, created to love.  Genealogies remind us of these truths that we are born into and experience the world through interrelationships with all other human beings, but especially with specific humans, normally our parents and family.  We are by our births given context in the world, given a story, given a shared human nature and story.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (c)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:5-9 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (a)

Genesis 11:5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

If humans aspired to build a tower to reach the heavens, they have not reached their goal, for the Lord still has to “come down” to see the city and tower which humans are building.  The puny efforts of humankind to reach the heavens by human technology and engineering “miss the mark” which is what the word “sin” actually means.  The leaden literalism of the humans causes them to think of heaven as a location which they can reach by their own physical labors.  A hard lesson is about to be learned – there is more to the cosmos than the physical.   Heaven is not a physical place, nor is it located “somewhere” in the universe.  The concrete thinking of humans has got to be changed so that they can come to understand the reality of the spiritual.   Have the humans totally forgotten that they are spiritual beings, created in God’s image and having a soul where the Spirit of God abides?   In the Genesis account, their theology is completely wrong.  They have forgotten about their own spiritual nature and their anthropomorphic descriptions of God have caused them to think about God completely in human and physical terms.  God comes down to see their city, but they apparently are incapable of seeing God.  God is not communicating directly to any of the humans.  The Lord’s thoughts recorded in this passage of Scripture are His inner thoughts.  He is saying nothing to the men of the city.  Is it possible that not only can they not see God, but they can not hear Him as well?   In Isaiah 44, Isaiah warns the

Osiris: god of the dead

people what is the end result of making false Gods:  “They know not, nor do they discern; for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their minds, so that they cannot understand” (44:18).   The result of making idols and having false ideas about god is that God closes your eyes and mind so that you cannot see or understand the living God.  It is an ominous warning – close your mind to the truth about God and God will help close your mind to Him.  The text however makes no reference to idols; if they are anything, these humans are portrayed as atheists.  They live without belief in God.

“And the LORD said…”   God is not talking to the humans, these are His inner thoughts.  Some Patristic writers saw God’s musing within Himself as yet another sign of the Trinity.  God is not talking to His lonesome self, but rather the Three Persons of the Trinity are communicating.   In Judaism God is talking to the angelic hosts.  Modern non-traditional scholars see in God’s talking ideas being adapted by the biblical writers from pagan sources, in this case the God talking with the gods.  Genesis remains so totally monotheistic, that even if the story is taken from pagan sources, it is completely reworked to keep within the framework of the absolute monotheism of Judaism which knows there is only one God and His Name is YHWH.

God endeavors to stop what He sees as an evil plan.  The confusion of tongues is interpreted by some Patristic writers as the way the merciful God prevented even worse sins from occurring.  But once again, the humans will turn what is done for their own good, and done to help prevent them from committing even more sin, into another tool for further sin.  The many languages on earth will give rise to endless wars and disputes. “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (James 3:5-10). 

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (c)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 10:1-14 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:1-14 (a)

Genesis 10:1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3 The sons of Gomer: Ash’kenaz, Riphath, and Togar’mah. 4 The sons of Javan: Eli’shah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Do’danim. 5 From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations. 6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Hav’ilah, Sabtah, Ra’amah, and Sab’teca. The sons of Ra’amah: Sheba and Dedan. 8 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Ba’bel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nin’eveh, Reho’both-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nin’eveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt became the father of Ludim, An’amim, Leha’bim, Naph-tu’him, 14 Pathru’sim, Caslu’him (whence came the Philistines), and Caph’torim.

Genealogies are often skimmed through by modern readers of the Bible because they are somewhat boring and not particularly pertinent to life.  St. Jerome (d. 420AD) saw the writers of Scripture as “the inspired vehicles of the divine mysteries” and so felt it important for us to pay attention to all of the historical details and peculiarities of their written words as they offer us insight into the person who is God’s chosen vessel for the sacred mysteries.   It is an interesting concept for it emphasizes that the authors of Scripture are more the vehicle of the divine mysteries (as they are the ones inspired by God) than are the written words themselves.  Their written words are almost a feeble attempt to record the inspiration which is really contained in humans not mostly in a book.  The written words thus in their details offer us insight into the inspired saint who wrote the text (besides, saints, not scriptures are made in the image and likeness of God).   This is a common idea found in the Christians of the early centuries: the Scriptures are mere signs which point to the spiritual reality, the real substance, God’s revelation.  Thus they don’t equate God’s revelation to the words themselves but to the reality to which the words direct our attention.  This very subtle and nuanced approach to the Bible helps prevent them from reading the text in a wooden or overly literal way.   It is not the words which are so important – they point to the truth which we are seeking.   In a certain sense it prevents what happens sometimes to modern fundamentalist and biblical literalists – Bibliolatry.   The text contains the revelation but is not to be equated with it, for the revelation is always beyond the limits of the written word.   As Jesus told the Jews:  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

Forefathers of Christ

Genealogies help establish an orderly succession of fathers to son in civil society, and become the basis for tradition – that common knowledge and wisdom which humans pass down from generation to generation.   But in early Christianity they also were the source of controversy and argument.   In Titus 3:9, we are warned, “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.”   A very similar warning is found in 1 Timothy 1:3-4: “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith.”   Genealogies which for the modern reader often appear boring and uninteresting were obviously at one time the seedbed for speculation which led to quarrels and dissension in the Church.  Interests in  and emphases on different passages of Scripture do change over time and in different cultures.  This does give witness for the importance of understanding how Christians in previous times read and used the Bible – it helps us avoid being limited by or trapped in our contemporary culture and thinking.   Aspects of the Scripture which were important, even critically, in ancient times are often glossed over by our modern sensibilities and lack of historical depth. 

No matter how diverse the people are in terms of nations, geography, languages, what is stunning in the genealogies and the first 11 chapters of Genesis is the absolute monotheism of this ancient text.  There is only one God.  Satan is not mentioned, neither are demons.  The gods of the nations are not mentioned.  Angels are not mentioned.  Idols are not mentioned.  There is no other spiritual being but the Lord God.  There is no celestial hierarchy in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.  The text establishes absolute monotheism – there are no other beings even close to God and not cosmic battle between God and evil.  Chaos exists which God is able to shape, contain and control for His own purposes.  Chaos is impersonal, not an evil one.  The only indication in these early chapters of Genesis of something other than the One God is  found in Genesis 1:26 and 11:7 in which God speaks in the plural, “let us…”  Christians have understood this to be a clear reference to the Trinitarian nature of God within the Jewish scriptures.  All the peoples of the world no matter how diverse have only one God.  This is another way in which the genealogies tie all of humanity together.   Our oneness with Adam is not so much a genetic thing; it is an issue that we all were created by the one God who is Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.   There are no other gods or spiritual beings.  There is none of the heavenly mythologies that are so common in virtually every other ancient religion.  There is no mention of astrology or any form of the worship of the heavenly bodies.   The entire opening chapters of Genesis are focused on this one God and His particular interest in and relationship with a very select group of people – a lineage that is completely tied in with the God of the universe.

Genealogies especially confront one of the most tenaciously held entitlements of modern capitalistic man:  self interest.  Adam Smith felt the very thing that will drive capitalism for the benefit of each person is self interest.  And we now assume our personal self interest to be a main reason why we would participate in anything.  The self is both king and god with each person living in an egocentric universe.  The genealogies tell us God has chosen certain individuals other than ourselves to be His chosen people and to serve the unique requirements of the Kingdom.  We read the genealogies to realize how many people God has chosen and worked with, and that not everything is governed by self interest.  Even Christ told us the two main laws were to love God and to love neighbor.  It is not always about me. Salvation is learning about something greater than my self and my self interests.  It is learning that my story is but a sentence is a bigger chapter in a much larger book whose author is God.   Scriptural genealogies offer to all humans the meta-narrative which ties every single human together in one grand story with God being the narrator.  Postmodernism denies the existence of one meta-narrative, but the Bible – and the science of DNA and genetics supports the Bible on this issue – offers that there is in fact a narrative which unites all of humanity and human nature itself.  For the believer the Bible is the meta-narrative in which our own story is unfolding while in science it is DNA which provides the thread connecting all humans and all living things.

Next:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:15-32 (a)

The Irrationally Real: Mathematics and Theology

I began listening to Professor Steven Goldman’s GREAT SCIENTIFIC IDEAS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD whenever I am driving in my car – so much to understand in the universe, so little time.   I remember wanting to study mathematics when I entered college.  It was so very logical and so close to my idea of truth at that time in my life. 

Somehow along the way I became less enamored with math and what it is capable of doing.  Looking at my son’s college algebra textbook, I am unimpressed and disinterested in the math – it answers none of the questions which are important to me now.  It may precisely describe the universe, but in so doing also circumscribes our humanity.   For some, the reality of mathematics proves that  human aspirations to understand the material universe as existing within the greater reality of God, is illogical and irrelevant.    However, for me math like science is limited to the empirical universe and thus is limiting to human aspirations of searching for something greater than the self, and greater than the empirical universe.  Calculus of course is a math that quantifies change and so opens up certain possibilities to us about things greater than what we normally can experience, but it no longer inspires me for it does not help me understand what it means to be human.

What now intrigues me about math are the ways in which it points to the irrational as being a real part of our universe.  Why that is significant to me is it tells me there are aspects of the universe occurring in nature that are irrational and yet real.  Take for example a perfect cube whose measurement of each side is exactly one unit.   It is 1x1x1 with a perfect volume of one.  Yet if we try to calculate the diagonal between opposite corners of the perfect cube we come to realize no rational number exists to express what is a real value.  For the value of such a diagonal of a cube whose sides each measure exactly 1 is the square root of two.  It is an irrational number, and yet a real number.  There are some limits to our ability to quantify the universe – or in quantifying, we have to admit the limits of our concepts to perfectly capture reality.

Even for so simple a concept as a perfect cube, we encounter the need for irrational numbers to calculate its diagonal.  We need concepts, models, terms which are irrational to describe the universe in its most basic forms.    We find the same issue in a perfect circle whose diameter is one unit – its circumference equals the irrational number called Pi

If we accept as fact that there is something which can be called precisely “one”, we will have to allow for irrational values that cannot be precisely expressed in the same terms.

It is very much like St. Basil the Great commenting to the effect that, “If I say that I exist, then I must say that God does not exist, for existence then means something applicable to humanity but not to divinity – for we cannot apply the same concept of existence to both humanity and divinity because they are unalike.   If, on the other hand, I say that God exists, and that existence can be used to describe divinity, then I must say that I do not exist, for existence is then not a concept that can be applied to humanity.”    Existence as a concept may describe either God or humanity, but because the two are so unalike, it is inappropriate to use the same concept for both.

Thus is the irrational reality which is our experience on earth.  If anything, math in its ability to utilize ever more abstract concepts to solve real problems, speaks to me of the limits of human language and concepts in coming to terms with the universe and its divine Creator.    There is a logic at work in the universe which is fundamentally different than math is capable of expressing  – for the very mathematical terms we would use to describe the most simplest of concepts will also and always require us to realize the limited value of the terms in constructing the universe as it is.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, many who accept the existence of God try to impose a simplistic concept of divinity on “God” in order to be able to claim that  they alone know or understand God, or that God must of necessity function in certain ways which they alone have the “gnosis” to explain.  Fundamentalists beware:  the concept of God like the concept of “one” quickly should lead us to realize we are dealing with a human construct which we impose on divinity, but which brings us face to face with non-rational reality.    Fundamentally speaking, human concepts are inadequate to fully express the reality of God.   Thus Genesis begins not with a dogmatic and doctrinal statement about God, but with narrative which expresses theology.  It warns us against reading it as science or math.  It expresses theology in story in order to engage our ability to think abstractly, non-rationally and creatively about that which is most real.

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:6-7 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:5 (b)

Genesis 6:6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

“it grieved him to his heart.”    He who loves much suffers much or so one adage says.  God’s grieving heart is being contrasted with the human heart in the previous verse, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).  God’s thoughts are on grief, human thoughts on how to do evil.  The extent of the fall is obvious – for now in what way is the human in God’s image and likeness?  Certainly the human heart has become ‘unlike’ God’s.   Thus says the Lord “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

St. John the Forerunner“…it grieved him to his heart…”   A most profound theological thought:  the sins of humans touch the very heart of God!   We often excuse our sinful behavior by saying, “It’s between me and God.”  This may be true, but the text also points out that our sins cause God pain and grief!   God is not merely a transcendent being untouched by His creation.  He is a very immanent and loving Creator whose inner being is touched and affected by what we, His creatures, do.  The incarnation does not result from God’s distance from us, but rather from His connectedness to us – from the fact that He is touched by our sin.  His response to this pain is to take on Himself our sin by assuming our flesh.   St. John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29).

“So the LORD said,…”    To whom is God speaking?  To whom does God share His sorrow and grief? In Christianity this is another sign of the existence of the Three Persons of the Trinity.  God is not a soliloquist; for after all this is all about revelation!   The thoughts of God are shared by the Three Persons of the Trinity and revealed to those inspired by God to record His thoughts in the Scriptures.  We do not know all that God thinks, but we do need to know all that He thinks to reveal!

Long-suffering Job

What kind of God do we worship?  Not only One who is creator and judge, but also the God of love who grieves in His heart when humans sin.  He is a God of compassion and feeling.  The image of the angry God who judges the ungodly which some like to preach, may misrepresent God because they ignore the foundational thoughts in God’s heart: love and painful sorrow.  When we fail to understand the compassionate nature of the God who is love, we reduce God in rationalistic terms to a God who is logic.  Genesis reminds us that God is not just mind, He also experiences life deeply through His heart.   We would do well to remember the words of God to Job’s totally rational interlocutors:  “After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eli’phaz the Te’manite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7-8)

God who saw the goodness in humanity and creation in the beginning, now regrets what He sees on earth.  What had God intended for humans?   What went wrong?  Had God not foreseen this turn of events?  Prior to this the only time God saw that His creation was not good was when He recognized the loneness of the first human.  But at that time God formed the plan to create another human who would be able to procreate with the first man.  Now God sees way beyond the world being imperfect to recognizing the evil in humanity.

St. Augustine not willing to concede that humans were created with “a defect” (or that the perfect God would create something defective), speculated that Satan has such a powerful influence over humans that humans cannot choose the good without the help of God.  He did believe humans had free will but he concluded that they were so influenced by Satan that they could only freely choose evil.  Humans in his thinking no longer were capable of choosing the good without God’s grace.  He formulated his ideas on predestination, a speculation that actually was rejected by the Church in the Christian West in his own day.  The later Medieval Roman Church will embrace his ideas despite their having been rejected by the early Church.  The radical reformers such as the 16th Century’s John Calvin took these predestination ideas to the extreme and declared humans as incapable of any free choice with lives totally pre-determined by God.   Such ideas of total predestination were never embraced by Biblical Judaism nor by early Christianity or even by later Orthodoxy which have always upheld human free will and responsibility. 

Apostle Peter

Such pessimistic ideas about humanity certainly are challenged by many sayings in the Scriptures themselves.  Such as, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you”  (James 4:7) or First Peter’s more cautionary comment, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9).  The New Testament exhorts us to resist Satan, not fear him; and certainly the New Testament authors seem to assume we can resist the Evil One.    Satan, according to our pre-baptismal exorcism does not even have power over swine.  We renounce him in the exorcism and spit on him – we claim to not only resist him, but to despise him, and to trample him beneath our feet.   Evil is pervasive in the fallen world, but its powers are limited.  We have the full power from God to resist evil and to overcome it. 

Next:   God Questions His Creation: Genesis 6:6-7 (b)