Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our Natural State and Forgiveness

To hurt, or injure, or do some injustice to another human being (or any other part of the creation) is not natural to man, but an aberration, a corruption, an infection upon the original and essential participation in the Image of God.  Even sin, with its disastrous and cosmic effects, could not destroy the nature with which God made us.  It can pervert, and misdirect, and even make it seem that sin is the truly natural thing (woe to us if we believe that lie!), but it can not obliterate God's good design.

This does not mean, however, that man makes "inherently" good choices (this is, in fact, one of the great theological non sequiturs of our recent history): without the grace and glory of God indwelling and pervading us, even our attempts at good cause harm.  Two examples will have to suffice for now.

The ALS Bucket Challenge has raised a wonderful amount of awareness and not a small amount of money for research.  However, in a world that so often hurts for water, how shall we justify our actions? (One friend I have went further and asked how we justify swimming pools; the point is well taken.)  We are required to make what St Maximos calls a "gnomic" choice, an action of will in which there is no immediate right answer, but pragmatic or other factors than the Kingdom of God have full sway.

The other example, and I am going to be somewhat oblique about it, is when the financial stability of an institution requires the termination of employment for some workers (usually, as the case goes, those on the bottom rungs of the ladder, who are often the most financially vulnerable).  To cause good, we cause great harm.

Let us now imagine that we have been hurt in some way: the reaction we have (remembering that our reactions, because of sin, act unnaturally, but also retain some connection and reflection to our original state) is protests of unfairness, injustice, or undue malice.  Most likely, we will get at turns angry and depressed and so on.  This leads us to the next stage: the judgment of the injurer.  They are bad people, evil people, greedy people, etc.  The use of the adjectival modifier, though, is not meant to describe the actions of the person, but their very nature: this is why we find it so hard to believe apologies or repentance, for how can anyone really change?  It may be that the characteristic actions of a person are those called avarice, fair enough.  But what modifier have we, unconsciously, chosen for ourselves? We are unforgiving.  While we may have been hurt, and often badly and sometimes irreparably, the damage inflicted upon our souls and therefore the world by not forgiving is infinitely greater than any earthly injustice.  "Fear not him who can kill the body, but rather him who can cast both body and soul into Gehenna."  I've heard many interpretations of this passage, some saying the truly fearful one is Satan, some saying it is Christ, but the truly fearful one, the one St Augustine calls "nothing but a guide to my own self-destruction" is me.  Christ gives us the prayer to "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" for "if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you."  To be unforgiving, to remember wrongs, to not seek reconciliation is to already be cast into Gehenna in the here-and-now, with the fullness thereof to be revealed later.  To be forgiving is to be like God, so that forgiveness is His Image. By forgiveness we overcome the corrupting influences of sin: the Cross opens up the possibility to us, forgiveness is not something we do on our own.

Having this mind like Christ, we can see those who hurt us not as monsters, but as brothers and sisters (due to their shared humanity, not necessarily their faith) in need of the healing of Christ as we are in need of healing.  St James tells us "Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." Wandering from the truth is not just an intellectual or doctrinal error, but not living out the way of Christ.  Any time we hurt, or injure, or do an injustice to one another we wander from the truth.  So we who live out that truth, who are forgiving to those who even crucify us, participate in the salvation of our brothers and sisters.  While Christ alone saves, He calls us to assist Him in this great work, by bearing one another's burdens, by forgiving as we have been forgiven, and by turning a sinner from the error of his ways.  In this is love perfected and Christ made manifest to our hurting world: "They will know you are My disciples by your love for one another."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gleanings: Forgiveness and Mercy

Forgiveness does not preclude or cancel out justice. St Paul's argument in the book of Romans, in some measure, is the revelation of the "righteousness" or "justice" (same word in Greek) that is revealed in the crucifixion of the Messiah, where our forgiveness is found. To forgive, in the deepest sense of the term, is to release (aphiami): we have been held in bondage by the one the Scriptures call the evil one, the devil, the serpent, the dragon, or the satan (yes, there is always a definite article). The Cross releases us, forgive us, from our sins by which we were held in slavery to death and unrighteousness. Since the serpent had no legitimate claim on us (he gained power by deceit and fraud), God's justice is our forgiveness.

Of course, this goes further and deeper. "Forgive everyone for everything." Let's not hold each other in bondage, but release others as we have been released, just as we pray in the prayer given to us by our Lord: "forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us." Forgiveness is the Kingdom come into our midst now; it is also the great promise of the Kingdom come in its fullness.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Principles of Christian Pacifism

Being a pacifist, especially in light of the situation in Ferguson, in Syria, in Iraq, and so on, might be seen as a foolish stance.  Of course it is.  But the Cross, the end of all violence, is foolishness.  Our God was executed as a common political dissident.  And we, contrary to billions of documented cases, believe He has risen from the dead, unable to die again.  Utter foolishness.  This is exactly why there is a case, a chance, for Christian pacifism: we are the fools of the world, following in the footsteps of a foolish, prodigal God.

If there is a principle for Christian pacifism, it is this: you are already dead.

Too often we read passages in the Scriptures, or sing songs, or pray prayers that assert we have died with Christ and our life is hid in Him, but we take this as metaphorical, which is to say, as a pious fiction meant to be psychological balm.  So we feel good that after our biological cessation, we will be in heaven.  Maybe.  More often, I've noticed, we fear death in the same measure as pagans, some times we fear it more.  But the Scriptures are clear, the Tradition is clear, the lives of saints from the Apostle Peter to our new Iraqi and Syrian martyrs are clear, this is no mere metaphor: it is the truest possible truth there is.  We have already died.

Why are we so violent?  What do the protestors in Ferguson, or the police, fear so much that they would abjectly deny the humanity of the other?  Death.  I do not mean to be too simplistic, although that is how I will be read by some.  We know, in the core of our being, that death is profoundly unnatural (even though, in one sense, it is the most natural thing): so we do whatever we can to forestall it, even at the expense of another human's life.  The fear of death combines with what the Fathers call philautia, or love of self, to exclude (that is, kill) the whole world for the sake of a few moments more for us, or for our tribe, or for our nation.  But those things, proleptically in Adam and truly in Christ, are dead too.  This is why Christ can call us to "leave house or wife or parents or brothers or children for the sake of the Kingdom of God" (Lk. 18:29): these allegiances, all of which dissolve upon death, are already dead (and reborn, as He goes on to say).  But this leaving isn't some sort of Pilgrim's Progress abandonment, but rather a death of self, a taking up of the Cross, the place where Christ called even for forgiveness towards those who crucified Him (and Christian history with the Jews would well learn to remember that the Father always grants the prayers of the Son), the only safe place in the entire universe, as the greatest power man, whether government official or rioter, possesses has no power there.  Christ has trampled down death, the fell weapon, by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life that they might lay it down for the Kingdom of God.

This leads to the active principle of Christian pacifism: interposition.

The pacifist, who understands and knows himself to be dead in Christ and his life hid thereof, can then act as a witness to Christ's resurrection by placing his body between warring parties.  Just as Christ interposed Himself between us and death, so we can can place ourselves in His stead (as His Body) between those who kill out of the bondage of the fear of death.  While this language might not be used, this is the implicit faith of the martyrs, past and present.  They interposed -- an act of intercession before God -- themselves between the demons who have always sought to influence those in power and the corrupted image bearers wielding power.  St Ignatius of Antioch comes to mind here as a specific example of one whose faith and witness to Christ's resurrection remade the violent and depraved Roman Empire.

Martyrdom, in other words, is the base of Christian pacifism.  This is no wishy-washy, bleeding heart liberalism; this is the faith of Christ and His Church, shown to us by the martyrs for the sake of the world.

Monday, August 11, 2014

This Violent World

We live in a violent world, whether directed against others or against the self.  A world that is so hell-bent on destroying itself for the tragic irony of maintaining life.  With all that is happening in Ferguson, St. Louis right now (about which I know precious little, especially since journalists have been banned from the area by the police), I'm reminded of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time.  In the first essay, he tells his nephew that part of the reason blacks had been treated unjustly and inhumanely by whites (his setting was Harlem post-WWII, but I'm finding it hard to believe it is any better today anywhere in the States) was because the symbolic universe (the sub-world or mythos) of white culture demanded the subjugation of non-whites.  The argument he makes, knowing the pressure cooker situation at hand, is that blacks must patiently show whites that their sub-world is a lie.  In fact, any mythos that does not allow for love, for forgiveness, for humility was straight out of the abyss.

We need to hear Baldwin today just as much as in the 60s.

Baldwin, famously in the second essay, rejects Christianity as a solution to what he calls the "racial nightmare."  Whereas it had promised faith, hope, and love, it offered only "blindness, loneliness, and terror, the first one actively cultivated to deny the other two."  How could such an institution change the world?  Christians are still guilty of this, I am guilty of this.

When the Church forgets herself, falls asleep, or neglects her mission, the world enters a nightmare.

When the defining characteristic of our religion is not the living saints we are to be producing, but our racism, our classism, our tribalism, our stingy affluence (Lord God, send us another St Francis!), then the world -- those desperately needing the healing love of Christ, those trapped most keenly and often most ignorantly in demonic snares -- suffer.  And the name of Christ, the only name by which healing can come, is blasphemed.

Here's the rub: all violence leads to the Cross.  All the hatred, and injustice, and malice, and cruelty -- Ferguson, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Gaza, the Holocausts of the last centuries (Jewish, Ukrainian, Armenian, aborted children), the wars, the terrorism, the everyday contempt and hatred -- are focused on the true human and true God.  Why?  Because we've turned our hearts towards self-destruction.  We abhor idols, especially those that oppress us, and who is more oppressive than ourselves?  As St Augustine said, "what am I but a guide to my own self-destruction?"  Having made ourselves gods, and then having failed at the task, we loathe ourselves and desires to smash the idols we have made.  Depression runs rampant, suicide becomes an everyday occurrence, war becomes absolute and everlasting.

What is needed is not killing ourselves, nor others, but sharing in the death of Christ. Yes, we need to die, but not in the bio-physical way (that will happen, alas, all on its own); rather, our selves -- now embroiled in pride and vanity and lust and malice and covetousness -- must die in Christ, to be able to speak the words He spoke to those who spat on Him, mocked Him, tortured Him, and crucified Him: "forgive them, Father, they know not what they do."  No one ever does: no matter how good we get at economic prognostication or psychic Tarot reading, we never know the future, especially the future created by our own actions.  We know not what we do.  So we not only need forgiveness, but have the essential need to forgive all others.  We need healing, but it can only come from joining Christ's crucifixion and allowing Him, the all-merciful One, to dispense justice.

It is long past time for a thorough examen: where have we contributed to the oppression, to the violence, to the terror of our world?  Are we willing to join in the Cross, sharing the sufferings, forgiving everyone for everything, so that the world might find peace, find true justice that heals rather than destroys further?

God, help us and give us Your divine strength.

Gleanings: Justification

Every once in awhile (as in the first time in 8 years) I organize my office. As I'm shuffling through papers to be (a) filed, (b) shredded, (c) recycled, I often come across hand-scrawled notes on the back of memos, printed emails, class handouts, etc. Often time they are poems, sometimes theological musings. While they are important only to me, I need a place to preserve them. Here's the first one to share:

"Justification is the vindication of honor in the face of sharp criticism. So, Jesus is 'justified' (shown to be honorable) after His shameful death via the resurrection. For the believer to be 'justified by faith,' then, shows that he/she has the highest possible honor from God, through participating in Christ's death and resurrection. The title of 'righteous' means, then, that one is shown to share the honor of the justified/vindicated One, i.e. that we do truly participate in Christ's resurrection/vindication through faith (Christ's and ours) even if the outside world does not see it that way."

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Theosis in John 1

Theosis or "Christification" is what I've come to believe is the end-game of salvation: to be united with God and so be restored in His image and likeness. St Athanasius summed it up by saying, "God became man so that man might become divine." He didn't mean that we cease being creatures, but that we take on God's "communicable attributes": we partake of and participate in God's righteousness, holiness, immortality, wisdom, etc. The only way to do this, though, is through Christ -- the ever-incarnate Lord. In other words, this isn't an escape from our mode of existence into some Platonic Form, but rather it is becoming what humans were always meant to be: "Because of the great love which He has for us, Christ became what we are so that we might become what He is", as St Irenaeus put it. Our union with God is only possible insofar as He becomes (and we remain) human. I've done a paltry explanation of what theosis is here, but I hope the main gist has come across. Just as God became human, so we, as humans, are given God the Holy Spirit to restore and, to use St Paul's language, glorify us (alongside all the Creation).

In John 1, we have this spelled out, but often gloss over it in favor of more standard readings of the text. (Brief caveat: I'm not denying the standard readings, nor trying to modify or change them. I'm noticing that the Scriptures are deep, as deep as the infinite Christ they speak of, and so can bear multiple, non-contradictory readings.) Looking at the first verse will suffice:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

The term used for "Word," famously, is Logos, a Greek term that has a rich history in the Septuagint and in Greek philosophy (especially that of the Stoics). It has a wide range of meaning, from a word to the logic of a thing to the reason or telos of something's existence. St Maximos the Confessor uses this last meaning to talk about how the Son, the eternal Logos of the Father, frames all things and draws all things to Himself: the many creational logoi are the one Logos. In other words, the reason/goal/end/telos of all created things is Christ Himself. It is this last meaning that I wish to explore today.

"In the beginning was the Purpose, and the Purpose was with God, and the Purpose was God."

It reads strange, but there is something excitingly biblical about it. Let's unpack it, starting from the final clause.

"the Purpose was God"

The Son will, even as His Kingdom has no end, hand over the Kingdom to the Father, so that "God might be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). Indeed, as St Paul says in Ephesians 1:23, Christ already is "all in all" and the Church is the fullness of Him (a verse worth chewing on and chewing on). All of this "all in all" language is the summary of what God is accomplishing in His world, "And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Eph. 1:9-10). The whole of creation is to be brought into Christ, the one who in His union of natures brings heaven and earth together: His divine nature "divinizes" the Creation. It brings it into participation with God's uncreated Glory, just as the earthly body of Christ shared on Mt Tabor.

Note that this, again, is not an eradication of the created, but rather a participation in which there is no "confusion, change, division, separation" (The Definition of Chalcedon): God remains essentially God, the creation remains essentially created, but now the creation shares in God's "energy" (to use the term of the Cappodocian Fathers and the Palamite). To share in God's glory is what we were created for (Rom. 8:30), what we've fallen short of (Rom. 3:23), and therefore what God won't share with our idols (Is. 42:8).

It is worth noting, as well, that this Glory is the Glory of the Crucified One. To become like God (to share in His image and likeness) is not "knowing good and evil" in the intellectual sense, but in the sense of being crucified to evil with the Good One. There is no "health and wealth" in theosis.

"the Purpose was with God"

The standard reading, of the Son being the Word, comes out most clearly here. The Purpose -- that of uniting all things to Himself -- was "with" God the Father. It was, to be a bit more literal with the Greek, "before" Him or "in His Face." Ephesians 1, which I've already quoted, looked at this. Here also is where predestination properly comes in: "For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29). Whatever else predestination might mean, it means that the Purpose -- God indwelling His world and transfiguring it -- was with God in the beginning. Even the presence of sin and death and corruption works, somehow and paradoxically, into God's Purpose being fulfilled. All the Apostles, in all the Epistles, speak of similar things like this: the Christ was with God, as His Purpose, since He is "the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last" (Rev. 1:11).

"In the beginning was the Purpose"

Working backwards, this one almost needs no argument: we were created, as seen in Romans 8:30, for glorification (and woe to those who don't attain to it by faith!). There is no thought here that God meant for something different, but got sidetracked by Adam's rebellion. Rather, Christ "slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8) meant to bring all things to Himself, things in heaven or on earth (Eph. 1:9-10).

God's purpose is to fill all the world with knowledge of Himself "as the waters cover the sea" (Is. 11:9), knowledge not being an intellectual exercise, but rather a share in His unending Life (Jn. 1:4): "for this is eternal Life, to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent" (Jn. 17:3).