Glory to God for All Things

Truth and Existence – A Second Look

The original article (which follows) was published in August (not long ago). However, questions that continue to arise tell me that I need to publish it yet again. I will here emphasize its connection with the Atonement. Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor, isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the Ancient Church’s statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply be dismissed as “odd” on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St. John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall, but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a walking existential crisis – verging on non-existence itself. This is not a result of God’s wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the “good God who loves mankind” and our preference for death over life. I can think of nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the wonder of His gift of salvation.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, “Being is communion.” In such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence – a mode of being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan taught: “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.”

This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His death and resurrection are the movement of God’s love to rescue humanity from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the fullness of His life.

It presses the question upon us all: “What is the truth of my existence?” It presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God – not finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious half-measures – but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions – this is not its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the words of her liturgies. In God “we live and move and have our being.” There is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence – but its mere pretence.

17 Responses to “Truth and Existence – A Second Look”

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  1. The pilgrimage continues. I write tonight from a hotel room in Clarksville, TN. I celebrate Divine Liturgy tomorrow at one of our newest OCA missions, Protection of the Holy Virgin. I will eventually reach the altar in my home parish. Pray for the faithful here in Clarksville.

  2. Chris says:

    When, by God’s grace, I came to understand this Orthodox understanding of salvation, it tore down many barriers to my personal growth in faith. It’s my opinion, that if there was one thing that Western Christianity should “take” from Orthodoxy, it is this clarification of atonement.

    I apologize for plugging a book, but for those who would like to read further on this topic, I recommend Fr. James Bersntein’s book “Surprised by Christ”. He devotes chapters 14,15, and 16 to explaining the Orthodox understanding of salvation. In very simple terms, he explains how our Unchanging God has no need (let alone desire) for such a debt collection.

  3. logismon says:

    “… Christ is the one bridge between the created and the uncreated as well as the one point that unites them both. In His person, Divine Nature is united with human nature without change, separation, or division. More precisely, divine nature assumed human nature in the hypostasis of the Word. This enables man in the image of God and potentially in His likeness to actively become a person through his life in the Church and union with Christ. Of course, man is potentially a person from birth, but he must activate this hypostatic principle by the power of Christ. He becomes a person by his communion with God … The ascetic and sacramental life activates the hypostatic principle in man.” Metropolitan Hierotheos [Vlachos], The Person in Orthodox Tradition, p. 228 (in Greek).”

  4. Ian says:

    Thank you Father; these are words I need to hear, as I continually have the voices of the fundamental Protestant church of my teens telling me Wrath, Wrath and Wrath; may God help me.

    My continued prayers for you, and my prayers for the faithful in Clarksville.

  5. seth says:

    fr stephan,

    i’m kinda trying to wrap my noggin around this one. basically, the further we are away from God, the less human we become? the less we “exist”?

  6. Eric James says:

    I’m reminded of the psychology and philosophy of Erich Fromm. I was astonished to read him in “The Art of Loving” describe Adam and Eve as “pre human”, and the Fall, estrangement from God, as a plunge into humanity, and what it means existentially to be human. The exact opposite of the truth.

    Glad to have found your blog!

    Eric James

  7. Vincent says:

    God as the ground of being is not a strange concept in the West even during the middle ages. This can be found clearly in the works of the German Dominican Meister Eckhart 1260-1328. Redemption as a return to the Trinity seems to be his central point. This arversion to any legal definition is somewhat problematic. God does not simply expunge sin, he forgives it. Forgiveness implies an offended party. Is Anselm really so off the mark? Can there be no place for his thought? If so what about the Old Covenent filled as it is with legal description. Has it no place? St Paul seemed very comfortable with its images and legal terms. Why are they so offensive to the East.

  8. I do not think Paul has great use of legal images and terms, and that the OT has been misread in this aspect by later Christians reading their own atonement doctrine back into the OT. There debt is much more about clean and unclean and ritual purity.

    Forgiveness does not necessarily imply debt. Christ clearly makes a link between forgiveness and healing in the healing of the paralytic. “loosing” would be a better translation, often. The problem in the East is that the notion of debt either limits God’s freedom (He must be paid), or makes of God a wrathful seeker of vegeance. It seems odd to me that Protestants who so rightly opposed Indulgences, immediately embraced the Anselmian doctrine. Indulgences is just a very crass model of the same. Paying for your sins. Every charge that Luther made against the Pope (“If he has the authority to forgive and loose everyone, why doesn’t he do it free of charge?”) could be hurled at the Anselmian God. It’s not just the Atonement, it’s the God yielded by the Anselmian Atonement that is repugnant.

  9. Seth, yes, the more we move away from God, or reject His love and gift of true life, the more our existence becomes a false existence we are become less truly what it is to be human. Read St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word.

  10. Brian says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    You stated, “Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin are certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith – though they do an extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme.”

    Can you please reference the work(s) where St. Gregory discussed this?

    Thank you.

  11. Raphael says:

    The cure for the human condition, post fall and post garden, is participation in the Life of God. Prior knowledge of physics and metaphysics not required.

    Thank God for the INCARNATION.

  12. Brian,

    I’m out of town this weekend, so I’ll try to post on Monday after I get back to my library.

    Raphael,

    Of course knowledge of physics and metaphysics are not required, though the lowest peasant who is united to God in Christ, knows more metaphysics than a thousand professors who do not know God. The peasant may not have the words for what he knows – but he knows.

    Some discussion of metaphysics – of the nature of human existence and such – are not outside the realm of the Gospel, or human experience. I agree, thank God for the Incarnation.

  13. Raphael says:

    Amen Father. All too often, the only words I have are ‘thank God.’

  14. Brian,

    Reference,

    Oration 45:22

  15. Brian says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to find that for me!

  16. No problem. It’s in the context where he discusses the “ransom theory,” i.e. to whom would a ransom be paid. He rejects the Devil as a recipient and the Father as a recipient.

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