Glory to God for All Things

A Particular Scandal

pantokrator_elia.jpg.scaled1000A character in a Peanuts cartoon once declared, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!”

The statement accurately describes our problems with the particular. It is easy to love almost anything in general – it is the particular that brings problems.

Nowhere could this be more true than with God. Speaking about God in the abstract is extremely common – after all – He is “everywhere present, filling all things.” He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good-  all, all, all. The very nature of such speech is generalized and generic.

However, it is impossible to experience anything in general. For the great scandal or stumbling block of particularity is not so much God but us. We are inescapably particular – it is an inherent part of being human. We are circumscribable; we are limited; we are local. And we chafe at such limits. The prefer that the ego of modern man become the measure of the world itself. That which does not interest me does not exist.

The abstract, generalized God is the god of modernity. The generalized God cannot offend – there is nothing offensive about Him. But just as He cannot offend, neither can He be known because there is nothing there to be known. We only know particulars.

Everything by which we know God is particular. The ultimate particularity is Christ Himself – the God who can be circumscribed, drawn, pictured, nailed, spat upon and crucified. 

The same is true of our ongoing relationship with God. One aspect of classical Christianity is its interest in icons, shrines, oil, bread, holy places, bones, etc. For modern people all of these things are confusing and even offensive. 

At the very least, “holy objects” seem superstitious. But holy objects and holy places are deeply part of the particularity of human existence. For example, we do not love “food in general.” We have a favorite food. And our favorite is very likely far more specific. We have a favorite food cooked specifically by someone we know, perhaps even associated with a place and time we ate it. All of the memories we have in our lives are most often tied to specific people, places and things. We rarely remember simply that “I felt great then.” Our lives are extremely concrete.

The God whom we know – gives Himself to us in the particular. In classical Christianity that particularity is the very heart of the faith. For Christ is not merely God-become-man. He is God-who-became-a-man

This particularity, according to the fathers, is the precise reason for making icons, because it is the property of a man that he may be depicted. An icon of Christ is proof and witness of His incarnation and particularity. We make icons in order to proclaim that God became a man.

But the Orthodox know that even an icon can become yet more particular. There are not just icons of the Mother of God, but the Vladimir Mother of God; the Iveron Mother of God; the Kazan Mother of God; the Tikhvin Mother of God, and so on. And each icon, though depicting the same Mother of God has its own unique story. And those unique stories continue as believers encounter that icon. It was the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God that protected Moscow from Tamerlane in 1395, etc.

And, of course, all of this seems like so much fuss over something that should be more general more generic

I have, from time to time, been invited to pray at certain public events. It has become common in America to be given “guidelines” for such prayers, often requesting the minister to be “generic” in his prayer (not proselytizing, or speaking of “the deity” in a manner that might give offense). Such guidelines were recently ruled unconstitutional though they’ve been around now for several decades.

It is, of course, the height of modernism – the desire for a God who gives no offense – the generic god. 

God is transcendently particular. He is the ultimate particular. For God alone is alone. He is not one of something of which there are two. He is the only God and thus the Transcendent Particular. 

And He leads us to Him (in His condescension) through particular places, things, words, people. But He does not condescend to become generic, for the generic cannot be the bearer of the Particular. An icon can be holy, but Art can never be. A man can be holy, but humanity can never be. 

And the Particular Who invades our lives through the particularities that we encounter is never generic. For the generic is no-thing – it is nothing. There is no generic, only the comfortable imaginations born of our desire to avoid the discomforts of the particular.

The more God is devoid of the particular, the more we reduce Him to a concept – even reducing Him to something like a natural resource: water, light, air, God. In such a position, God remains available (everywhere), inert and ready to be ignored or accessed, depending on our own requirements. The generic God is thus the ultimate consumer product. In a consumerist culture, there will always be pressure to move God towards the mode of “available resource,” a mere symbol for our own selfish desire for transcendence. Such a God underwrites and validates my “spirituality,” but makes no demands that might be occasioned by His own particularity.

The particularity of God will be seen as an increasingly offensive reality within a consumerist culture. Such a Particularity too easily assaults the universal claims of all consumers. So-called “non-denominationalism” is simply an ecclesiological expression of a generalized God in which nearly all particularities are seen as “man-made,” and merely reflect consumer desires. Any elevation of the Particular in religious terms is easily seen as an effort to control access to a generalized God (“You’re trying to put God in a box”). 

Classical Christianity (whether Roman Catholic or Orthodox) proclaims the Particularity of God. It is why Classical Christianity speaks of “the” Church. That both classical groups speak in such particular terms is not mutually contradictory – it is simply evidence of the Great Schism. The present conversations between them are a discussion about the nature of the Particular and themselves. Those who have distanced themselves from the Particular God have no place at the table, because they have declared that the table does not exist.

Conversion to classical Christianity requires the difficult acceptance of the Particular God (and thus a particular Church). That acceptance includes the rejection of the etiquette of the generic. You will offend your friends and family – for the acceptance of the Particular casts judgment on the general whether it is uttered or not. 

But this difficult acceptance is a necessary thing – for the generic God is – ultimately – no God at all. It is merely a god, a cipher for a cultural notion. The generic god cannot save for it can only offer something in general. 

Eternal life is an invitation into ultimate Particularity. Accept it, and you will become a Person, a true human being.

28 Responses to “A Particular Scandal”

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  1. Transcendently particular! I like that a lot.

  2. fatherstephen says:

    Yes. I almost said “ultimate particular,” but it reminded me too much of Tillich, and “Transcendent Particular” had the added advantage of being a paradox.

  3. Michael Bauman says:

    The adult Sunday school class I lead is discussing your book. Just this Sunday we talked about the particularness of God as Person.

    It is the incarnational reality and the sacramental presence. He is so particular that He can be sealed in each of us and still be everywhere present.

  4. Dino says:

    It strikes me that “Transcendently Particular” is one kind of succinct ‘explanation’ of the physically unexplainable encounter of all humanity (on the face of all of the Earthly Globe) with Christ (on the ‘Last Day’).

  5. fatherstephen says:

    I could easily (and may later) press the mystery of particularity. It is not just that God is particular, but that He is transcendently particular. CS Lewis did this somewhat in his book The Great Divorce in which that which is heavenly is presented as “more real” and thus “harder” than that which is not yet heavenly. It is the utterly particularity of God that is completely overwhelming. I cannot categorize Him. In the face of God there is ONLY the face of God. There can be no hiding place – “no shadow of turning.”

    I wrote a while back in a similar manner about God is One.

  6. Photini says:

    “You will offend your friends and family – for the acceptance of the Particular casts judgment on the general whether it is uttered or not. ”

    Oh, how well I know it! I wish I could share this particular post, but there is already so much tension….. Now is not the time.

  7. John says:

    “In such a position, God remains available (everywhere), inert and ready to be ignored or accessed, depending on our own requirements. The generic God is thus the ultimate consumer product. In a consumerist culture, there will always be pressure to move God towards the mode of “available resource,” a mere symbol for our own selfish desire for transcendence. Such a God underwrites and validates my “spirituality,” but makes no demands that might be occasioned by His own particularity.”

    These strike quite near the heart for me. I know decently well what God would have of me (the instructions are in the gospels and lived out in the lives of the saints), and yet I still treat God as this “available resource” accessed when I feel like doing so and ignored most of the time.

    But what is the alternative mindset? That God is always and everywhere making demands of me? This seems like it could easily turn unhealthy and legalistic. I think you must be saying that we ought at all times to be aware of God as “particularly transcendent”, but – I don’t know how to do that.

  8. Ben says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this article

  9. MichaelT says:

    Father, Bless.
    I hope you don’t mind me giving this personal example.
    My father died last Christmas Eve. He was 89 years old. Over the last two years he had gotten to the point where he just didn’t have much to say. This frustrated my Mother as he was always a talkative person. My wife and I live 400 miles away so I call and talk to my mother at least every Sunday. Ten days before Christmas I called and much to my surprise, Dad was in a talkative mood. I told him we would be coming for Christmas, I remember his response was “ We better be careful we might miss it”. That sounds like my old Dad, always trying to be funny, I thought at the time.
    On December 19th Dad had a heart attack and was comatose in the ICU on mechanical ventilation. I turned 61 on the 21st and Happy Birthday to me, Dad woke up and was off the ventilator! To make sure he knew who I was I asked him to tell me my name. His reply “61”, I asked him again he kept saying “61” I pointed to my older brother and said “What’s his name? His reply “65” Well, that convinced me. He was his old self again, always the jokester!
    The doctors said Dad needed heart surgery but was so frail would probably not survive it, After much prayer and discussion the family decided to just make him comfortable and not do anymore extraordinary measures. My sister and I had a long talk down the hall in private away from his bedside. She lamented over her youthful mistakes, as we all do in times like these ,but she said something that really caught my attention and I had her repeat it just so I could be clear on what she was trying to say. She said “ Instead of looking for myself in the wrong places I could have found myself in their lives, with their friends and been more involved with them when I was young” I really didn’t know what to say, knowing my sister as I do, but it struck me as odd at the time.
    Dad died at 3:15 pm December 24th 2013. The next day I woke with an unbearable sadness that I can only describe as suffocating. I remember I was washing my face and a song started in my head “Please, Celebrate Me Home” I was shocked, almost angry that that song was in my head. My dad is dead, I can’t celebrate! But it wouldn’t go away. I don’t think I’d heard that particular Kenny Loggins song for over 20 years at least, Well it wasn’t going away so looked up the lyrics and broke down in tears, Some would call it a coincidence. I call it “Transcendently Particular”. My Dad had sent me a Christmas gift, a message straight from God and himself.

    Celebrate Me Home by Kenny Loggins

    Home for the holidays, I believe I’ve missed each and every face,
    Come on and play my music, Let’s turn on the love light in the place
    It’s time I found myself totally surrounded in your circles
    Whoa, my friends

    Please, celebrate me home, Give me a number,
    Please, celebrate me home Play me one more song,
    That I’ll always remember And I can recall,
    Whenever I find myself too all alone, I can sing me home.

    Uneasy highway,Traveling where the Westerly winds can fly,
    Somebody tried to tell me, But the men forgot to tell me why,

    I gotta count on being gone, come on woman, come on daddy,
    Be what you want from me,I’m this strong, I’ll be weak

    Please, celebrate me home,
    Give me a number,
    Please, celebrate me home
    Play me one more song,
    That I’ll always remember,
    I can recall Whenever I find myself too all alone,
    I can make believe I’ve never gone,
    I never know where I belong,
    Sing me home.

    Please, celebrate me home,
    Give me a number,
    Please, celebrate me home
    Play me one more song,

    Celebrate, celebrate
    Celebrate, celebrate
    Celebrate, celebrate
    Celebrate me home

    Please, celebrate me home,
    Please, celebrate me home,
    Well I’m finally here,
    But I’m bound to roam,
    Come on celebrate me home
    Well I’m finally here,
    But I’m bound to roam,
    Come on celebrate me home
    Well I’m finally here,
    But I’m bound to roam,
    Come on celebrate me home
    Please, celebrate me home,
    Please, celebrate me home,
    Please, celebrate me home,
    Please, celebrate me home,
    Please, celebrate me home,
    Please, celebrate me home,

  10. Fr David Bozeman says:

    “An icon can be holy, but Art can never be. A man can be holy, but humanity can never be. ”

    Do you have any thoughts on how this applies to “the” Church as opposed to “a” Church? I have heard it explained that in our ecclesiology, the Church (in the abstract) is perfect and holy but individual congregations, while manifesting the fullness of the Church, are not holy in the particulars.

  11. fatherstephen says:

    Fr. David,
    Christ is risen! As I am using it here, I think we speak incorrectly when we even think of the Church as abstract. It does not exist in the abstract. I would instead say that the Church is perfect in particular – but that we often fail to be rightly particular. If God is transcendently particular, it is our abstraction(s) that is sinful. The Church is the Body of Christ – that is a participation in the Particular that is Christ. But when the Church begins to think of itself as having some existence of its own, apart from Christ, as an institution, as “my” diocese, as “my ministry,” etc., then it is being “abstracted” away from the true particularity of its existence.

  12. George says:

    As part of my daily devotion, I say this prayer:
    Holy Trinity let you grace fill every person I encounter today on line, on the phone, and in person.
    Thank You for every person I encounter today.
    Make me a blessing to every person I encounter today.

  13. fatherstephen says:

    John,
    The path towards Particularity is a path of greater intentionality. It is a path of true living. We go through the day as sort of “abstracted” people. I become “a consumer.” Especially in our mass culture I place myself into the identity-free shadow existence of modern man. Even a little thing – I “eat” an apple. But how? I eat it mindlessly, always moving towards the next bite, never present to the bite that is in my mouth. I am probably distracted – reading something – maybe even driving my car. So I “eat the apple in general.” I drive the car in general. I watch television in general (channel surfing is a good example). I walk past my wife with a greeting – but she is just there in general. And so on. This is not living. It is becoming some sort of Zombie. (the Apocalypse!)

    We are created to exist as Persons. The is a very particularized existence. I engage God, particular to Particular, in a communion that is mindful and present tense. There is nothing abstract about it. The more deeply I engage God, the more particular He becomes in my awareness. I have to slow down and pay attention.

    The Church Tradition is actually quite specific about how we do this. We pray (at least 3 times a day). We face East. We cross ourselves. We make prostrations, etc. We fast, etc. During the other times when we are not able to do this – we slowly learn to do something like the Jesus prayer. Depending on the kind of work someone does, the prayer will be easier or more difficult.

    But what we try not to do, is to live our lives “in general.” Our faith should become quite specific. Legalism could easily be a temptation for the modern mind (we’re taught legalism in our culture). I think of it as “paying attention” or “sobriety” rather than anything else. I have fewer legal issues in my mind about it.

    It is a good question – and worthy of so much more than I can say in this short space.

  14. dino says:

    What a fabulous explanation of the life that Grace teaches – it is exactly that: a watchful life of true person-hood, constantly aware God’s loving gaze, unceasingly trusting in His providence, continually thankful, and, at times, valiantly ignoring our wretchedness that is threatening to overcome us for the sake of the One.

  15. Drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    An excellent insight. Thank you once again for your ministry of translating the holy into words I can understand.

  16. fatherstephen says:

    AR,
    It’s an extremely complex question. Beyond the reach here.

  17. marie says:

    Michael T, thanks for sharing the story about your father. My condolences to you. I can relate, being blessed with a jokester papa too and sadness over opportunity lost. I have had dreams and he is happy and even put an arm around my shoulder. God is good. What an amazing experience to have that song pop into your head.

  18. mary benton says:

    John –

    You wrote,

    But what is the alternative mindset? That God is always and everywhere making demands of me? This seems like it could easily turn unhealthy and legalistic.

    Not to in any way contradict Fr. Stephen’s response, but another perspective is found in St. Porphyrios’ Wounded by Love, “There is one thing, O Christ, that I want, one thing I desire, one thing I ask for, and that is to be with You.”

    The generic god is not one that I can be profoundly in love with – one whom I long for and think of with joy whenever I am able. Only a particular God can inspire and draw me into this “divine eros”.

    This is not to suggest that there are no “demands” in such a relationship – but rather they don’t feel so much like demands to a heart in love. Such a relationship, in reality, demands everything – but everything is willingly given.

    The best human analogy I can think of is when one is caring for a helpless loved one (baby, ill spouse, infirm elder, etc.) The tasks themselves may be overwhelmingly burdensome or demanding but the deep and abiding love for the person brings a grace that overrides the “demand” of everything.

    Surely as we grow in love with our transcendently particular God, our experience far exceeds this human example…

  19. mary benton says:

    Fr. Stephen – I’m getting a message that I’m posting a duplicate of something I didn’t post before. Please correct (and forgive) if I’ve made a mistake. Otherwise, I’ll try again tomorrow. Thanks.

  20. John says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen, and Mary, for your thoughts. I think there is much in your response, Father, for me to dwell on. Engaging God “in a communion that is mindful and present tense” without abstraction – yes, this sounds like what I am lacking (among many other things, I’m sure), what I need. Not a general, abstract love for the idea of Christ (or my conception of Him), but the love of Him, an awareness of Him, in each present moment. .. Lord, have mercy!

  21. Ian Attila says:

    What a great article Fr. Stephen! Thank you!

  22. Jeff says:

    ” For it ( the whole) is not brought into being for thy sake , but thou ( the particular ) art for its sake”, Plato

    Glad we live outside of this

  23. Chris says:

    **This is a comment specifically for Dino**

    I saw your comment on Fr. Kimel’s site here: http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/the-argument-from-gods-love-for-the-blessed-part-1/#comment-5225 and was wondering if you had a source for that quote. I would very much like to read more, as it is the first encounter I have had with a saint or other writer on the issues that have plagued me for years, about the sufferings of the damned, and the memory of evil. I thank you in advance.

  24. Itinérante says:

    “St. Francis was, to the last agonies of asceticism, a Troubadour. He was a Lover. He was a lover of God and he was really and truly a lover of men; possibly a much rarer mystical vocation. A lover of men is very nearly the opposite of a philanthropist; indeed the pedantry of the Greek word carries something like a satire on itself. A philanthropist may be said to love anthropoids. But as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ. Say, if you think so, that he was a lunatic loving an imaginary person; but an imaginary person, not an imaginary idea. ”

    ― G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi

  25. AR says:

    Classic Chesterton. Wonderful.

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