Life in a Sacramental World

At the ordination of a priest, the consecrated Body of Christ is placed in his hands. He is told to “Guard this!” until the coming of Christ. It is a very solemn moment – the beginning of a lifetime in which a man’s relationship to bread will never be the same. It is also something of a conversion – a movement from the secular inert character of matter towards a world of sacrament, mystery and icon. This same movement should not be restricted to the ordained priesthood – for it is the most essential element of the Christian life. All of us live in a world that is sacrament – the priesthood of the Church exists for a ministry within the Church – but humanity itself was created for a priesthood of all creation. The words directed to a priest at his ordination apply to all of us: “Guard this!”

Protestant teaching early on isolated the text in 1 Peter 2 that describes believers as a “royal priesthood,” and interpreted it in a polemical manner that negated the special character of the ordained priesthood. Many Christians today have no sense of priesthood, whether it be the priesthood of Christ or of themselves. “Priest” has ceased to have much modern meaning.

Orthodoxy holds that Christ is the one, true priest. The priesthood exercised within the Church is a participation in Christ’s priesthood. But what do we mean by priesthood in the first place? How is Christ our priest?

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins (Heb. 5:1).

The most essential act of priesthood is offering. The priest presents our offerings to God on our behalf. He gives us the blessing of God on God’s behalf. Christ’s self-offering both to the Father and to humanity is the very definition of priesthood. The focus on Christ’s sacrifice as “payment,” as well as other images, have tended to weaken the sense of offering inherent in His death. Offering, for a variety of historical reasons, has been deeply diminished from the religious consciousness of many. The inner dynamic of the Eucharist is an offering. To live the sacramental life is to live a eucharistic life, a life of offering.

For most, the word “offering” immediately invokes the image of “money.” This is not incorrect, even if it is limited. Money can certainly be an “offering,” but our thoughts on the subject probably miss the point. Money indeed has a sacramental character (as does all of creation). In  a modern culture, money is something of a sacrament of all of our activity. As Christ Himself noted, it remains the primary means by which we may know the heart (Matt 6:21). Interest in spiritual things by those who do not practice “tithing” (returning to God a tenth of what we receive) can easily become an exercise in vanity. The failure to give alms generously (as in the tithe) can reduce spiritual activity to the level of a hobby. In this matter, the Orthodox differ in no wise from the non-Orthodox. Our culture is deeply enslaved by Mammon. Moderns are deeply suspicious of all things having to do with money. We see greed everywhere around us (except within ourselves). Non-believers think of Churches as rich and despise them. The myth of Church wealth is largely just that – myth. (The place of ancient land-holdings and State support of the Church, in lands such as Greece, is a separate topic).

Generosity is more fundamental than fasting (people seem to pay great attention to the latter and little to no attention to the former). I have occasionally been told that modern welfare states have made tithing a thing of the past because our taxes now support the poor, etc. Taxes, no matter how well spent, are never a matter of offering, they are not eucharistic in nature. They are the object of coercion: no one voluntarily pays more than they forced to. What Caesar does with what belongs to Caesar is of no spiritual consequence to us. It is what is offered to God that constitutes a priestly existence.

Generosity is fundamental – but it only lays a foundation. St. Maximus the Confessor taught that “man is a microcosm”: we are the entire universe gathered into personal form. If the physicists are correct, the largest number of elements within our bodies were formed in the furnace of the stars. In the words of pop-singer, Joni Mitchell, “We are stardust.”

At the same time, we are the universe gathered into conscious form. In human beings, the universe has self-understanding and can speak. Our ability to speak is perhaps the most profoundly human thing we do. The universe exists as a gift – there is no necessity in its existence – it is created out of nothing. But in the words and volition of human beings, the gifted universe can freely offer itself back to the Giver. It is this cycle of Giver-Gift-Giving that is the heart of all priestly existence (and the true heart of the Christian faith). In Chrysostom’s liturgy the priest prays:

Therefore, I entreat Thee Who alone art good and ready to listen: Look down on me, a sinner, Thine unprofitable servant; and cleanse my soul and heart from an evil conscience; and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable me, who am endowed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, Thy holy table, and perform the sacred mystery of Thy holy and pure Body and precious Blood. For I draw near to Thee, and bowing my neck I implore Thee: Turn not Thy face away from me, nor cast me out from among Thy children; but make me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to Thee. For Thou art the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

…”The Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received…” This is the very depths of the Eucharist. Read through the Eucharistic liturgy and note the use of the word “offer” and its various iterations. It is an exercise in truly hearing what is being said.

To live the sacramental life is to live the life of offering.  We offer has been offered to the Receiver and the Received. To behold the Received (and the Offered) in every element and moment of creation is to see the world in its truth. This is not an exercise in the imagination or a mere interpretation of the world. The fathers teach that the pure in heart actually perceive the “Logos-ness” of creation. The relationship between Logos and His creation is true, real and substantial, not merely referential.

Modern Christians are profoundly non-sacramental. The simple statement, “We use things,” says it all. The world around us consists of things and is not perceived in its Christic relation. That this is so is only a comment on the frailty of our sinful state. That we are willing to think that this frailty is an actual description of the truth of things, however, is a comment on our perversity.

Secularism is the life of the anti-sacrament. Priesthood ceases to be a life of Offerer and Offered, Receiver and Received. In the secularized world the priest becomes something of a civil servant, a functionary. Priests are hired and fired, compared and judged. They are measured by worldly standards of effectiveness or the simple whims of parish politics. If this is the case of the ordained priesthood, then it is worse still for the priesthood of all believers. Rather than bearing the dignity of the Microcosm, the anti-sacrament modern man reduces himself to Thing and User. Users and Things cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

Chrysostom again gives us words:

O Lord God almighty, Who alone art holy, Who accepts the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon Thee with their whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bear it to Thy holy altar, enabling us to offer unto Thee gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Thy sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable unto Thee, and that the good spirit of Thy grace may dwell upon us and upon these Gifts here offered, and upon all Thy people. Through the compassion of Thine only-begotten Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






57 responses to “Life in a Sacramental World”

  1. Pr. Lovett Avatar

    Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

  2. […] Pick it up!☦Nothing But Orthodoxy☦ var pulltime = 'Tue, 21 Aug 2012 16:05:21 +0000';1) Life in a Sacramental World fatherstephen on […]

  3. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  4. dinoship Avatar

    It is interesting that the Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer -which is most intimately linked to the healing of our souls- leads to a soul’s noetic energy (the “Nous”) functioning priestly in the Heart: offering one’s whole being and all of creation in ‘fixated’ thanksgiving back to the Lord, -in and through the energy of the Holy Spirit. (Mind in Heart)
    There is something undeniably priestly in this, and this priestliness applies to all laymen. When we pray to God -prior to having reached this priestliness- we ask to be healed of our deep seated egocentric priest-lessness.
    This kind of healing is somewhat unknown in the west. Even our extremely common description of Christ in Orthodox prayers as the “healer” (“Physician of our souls and bodies”), is virtually unused in the prayers of the Protestant and Catholic world.
    The notion that Man needs to re-acquire his royal priesthood, that was lost with the Fall, is one and the same as the “healing” which is normally referred to as the triptych: “Purification-Illumination-Theosis”.

  5. PJ Avatar

    “Generosity is more fundamental than fasting (people seem to pay great attention to the latter and little to no attention to the former). I have occasionally been told that modern welfare states have made tithing a thing of the past because our taxes now support the poor, etc. Taxes, no matter how well spent, are never a matter of offering, they are not eucharistic in nature. They are the object of coercion: no one voluntarily pays more than they forced to. What Caesar does with what belongs to Caesar is of no spiritual consequence to us. It is what is offered to God that constitutes a priestly existence.”

    Yes! Thank you!

  6. Simon Avatar

    Father, your characterisation of taxation as coercion is an ideological one – and one that runs counter to the Christian worldview. Good governance both in OT times and in the NT and now involves protection of the weak and vulnerable, and this is a moral consideration of the highest order. It’s very clear to anyone who has read the Prophets. Governments must tax (for how else could they function?). Those who see taxation as “coercion” or “stealing” rather than moral duty have to ask themselves why it is they have this kind of attitude towards rule and authority. It goes hand in hand with the individualism and anti-establishment mentality that seems to be etched in the psyche of large sections of America society.

    We can argue about the limits of the welfare state, but those who argue against it, it seems to me, do it from a stand point of self-interest with a philosophical presuppositions that places supreme value on individualism. You see this in the running mate for Romney, Paul Ryan – who espouses and religiously believes in the philosophies of Ayn Rand. If anyone know anything about her thought, you’d know that she has no place for mercy or compassion. These ideologies are plainly evil. N.T. Wright once said that the policies of Thatcher were evil. Wright was right.

    That you seek to bring the issues of welfare state and taxation as coercion into a blog about the Sacramental worldview speak volumes about your culture. But other Christians just don’t have these cultural hang ups. And we would argue that you are just wrong on this. “The world is a sacrament” except for government and money you are “coerced” pay to them…. please! As if good government can not be offered to God. This is an American cultural hang up.What Ceasar does with his funds is of no consequence for our spirituality? Really? Separation of Church and state much? Good luck with that guys. I can’t think of a more secular notion. I think most good law-abiding citizens see paying taxes as a duty (indeed a moral duty). The reason for characterising tax as coercion: plainly greed. That is the top and the bottom of it.

  7. Jim Avatar

    A humble word to Simon. I probably agree with your sentiment about the link between words involving sacrament and the welfare state, etc. Maybe the context was meant to demonstrate that we all have allowed taxes, the government, etc. to relieve us of a sacramental duty to one another.

    I don’t want to speak for Father Stephen, I just choose to read these words in a different light. Otherwise, we all need to remember that the minimal taxes we do pay, pay for our civilization.


  8. PJ Avatar

    “– who espouses and religiously believes in the philosophies of Ayn Rand.”

    This is utter falsehood. Consider the man’s own words on the matter:

    ““I, like millions of young people in America, read Rand’s novels when I was young. I enjoyed them … They spurred an interest in economics, in the Chicago School and Milton Friedman … But it’s a big stretch to suggest that a person is therefore an Objectivist … I reject her philosophy … It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas … Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”

  9. PJ Avatar

    ” I think most good law-abiding citizens see paying taxes as a duty (indeed a moral duty). The reason for characterising tax as coercion: plainly greed. ”

    No doubt most people feel they have a duty to give money to the poor and needy. That this duty is synonymous or interchangeable with taxation is a big assumption. Indeed, I charge that the two — charity and taxation — are miles apart.

  10. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Simon, allow me, please, to offer another perspective about your comment that Paul Ryan “espouses and religiously believes in the philosophies of Ayn Rand [i.e. ‘Objectivism’].”

    He spoke about this recently in an interview and distinguished between her novels and her philosophy. About her philosophy he said “It’s something that I completely disagree with. It’s an atheistic philosophy. … she came from communism. She showed how the pitfalls of socialism can hurt the economy, can hurt people, families and individuals and that to me was very compelling novels. Which says freedom, free enterprise, liberty is so much better than totalitarianism and socialism.”

    Trying to find any intersection where grace meets and marries a political ideology is bound to fail and most historic attempts that I know of have only produced delusions and destructive collisions with lots of victims.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Simmmo (Simon),
    You do me wrong, brother! You’re assuming a great deal without asking a clarifying question. I do not see taxation as stealing – coercion, yes. I mean by that – that the state exists by coercion – it has the power of the sword. At times it wields it quite benevolently, for which we should all be grateful. At times is wields it quite unjustly for which we all pay to be delivered. We live in a relatively benign era. Nevertheless, you speak as though all taxes were for the poor. My taxes also build nuclear weapons, kill the unborn, maintain a chemical weapons stockpile, all the stuff that goes into being the world’s greatest superpower.

    There are elements of duty that can be invoked with regard to Caesar. I respect that, and fulfill my duties conscientiously where they do not conflict with the commandments of God. I have long been aware, however, that my duty to God could put me in prison (we can discuss my position viz. the draft laws in 1971-73 at another time). I certainly vote my conscience with regard to what Caesar does with my/his money, but I do not confuse that with a sacramentality. I believe that the state exists in a fairly strange netherworld – not exactly a demonic entity charged with fulfilling certain divine commands – but neither a divinely instituted partner of the Church in achieving the Kingdom of God on earth.

    The failure of Christians to maintain a healthy critique of the state has, at times, been disastrous. The failure of a duty-laden theology in Germany of the 1930’s is the most outstanding modern example. Christians were simply unprepared to deal with an evil state. Those, such as Karl Barth and others (the Barmen Declaration) set an example and direction for Christians and the modern state. I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke (Time magazine once dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” – perhaps a dubious monicker). Hauerwas was something of a Barthian, and a pacifist, and a very strong critic of the state. About as far removed from Ayn Rand as possible. Your characterization of those who criticize the welfare state is simply a slander, I might add. It means the welfare state can’t be criticized. It needs to be, because it isn’t working. But that’s another matter. I’m writing about the sacramental life.

    Any action that can be offered to God with thanksgiving has a sacramental character – and that would include the actions of a civil servant. Sometimes those actions can be profound. I grew up in the Jim Crow South, and have seen government act in an evil manner, and I have seen a deep, even profound goodness at other times and places. I might add that during the same period, the worst racism I ever heard espoused was from an evangelical pulpit. But those were different times.

    I will offer an example of the coercion of the state. In the 90’s, as an Anglican, I authored articles and canonical changes that would have had the Church refuse the use of the civil courts for the settling of ecclesiastical matters (as in taking property away from a congregation in Church disputes). I’m condensing a lot here – but my point then was that the state (civil courts) ultimately have their authority resting in their ability to legally use guns. If you don’t obey – we will compel you. I do not think Church law should be compelled (and certainly not with violence). It contradicts God’s law (1 Cor. 6:7-8).

    But Orthodoxy has lived through so many establishments of the state that were evil and hostile to the Church, that it is hard to put together a real hearty pro-duty theology like Reinhold Niebuhr’s. N.T. Wright proved he was a member of the Labor Party, not that Thatcher was evil. The demonization of opponents within democratic societies has served no one well (including the poor).

    I commend you for paying your taxes (though you did not say that you pay more than you are asked). I pay mine, too, and do so with respect. But, yes, the state uses my money for whatever it deems to be good, regardless of the law of God. It’s a “duty,” of some sort, but not something I would declare as a “moral duty.”

    Now. Brass tacks. We have a moral, even sacramental duty to the poor. This is true no matter what the state does or does not do. I cannot remove my moral duty by pointing to the state. They do not relieve me of that duty. I will vote as conscientiously as I can – but my responsibility before God and others does not end in a ballot box. Having voted is, in the Kingdom of God, of little consequence. Caesar will do whatever he pleases. But I (we) must do what God pleases and there the sacramental life begins.

    I by no means argue for private charity to substitute for government programs. To a degree, I just don’t care (having voted). On the level of my life there are needs and possibilities for my love, my work, my money, my time that invite me into a profoundly sacramental existence. My dismissal of government largesse was that it is not, nor has it ever been, a proper argument against Christian giving. Taxes are not a substitute for the offering we give to God (alms). No father of the Church has ever taught otherwise.

    We’ve covered ground before concerning the American political scene and religion. You are reading things into this present article that are simply not there. It is offensive to me that you suggest my characterization of tax as coercion is because of my greed. My statement was not a political analysis but a theological assertion (certainly within the writings of Hauerwas it would be so described). I didn’t quote a political figure in that characterization – you read it in. If you’re ticked at Ryan and Ayn Rand, and the hosts of the American right, fine. But it’s a misplaced card in this posting.

    I will not be approving any further political discussion in the comments section. There are too many passions.

  12. mary benton Avatar


    My understanding is that the sacramental is the “offering” and taxes aren’t really offered in a free way, in a generous way. Those who practice tax resistance as a matter of conscience, choosing to offer their money directly to the poor rather than pay taxes, typically have their possessions seized by the government. Thus, the offering to the poor is not at the heart of tax law. It is a good thing when a tax code is guided by a moral code but it is not the same thing as sacrament.

    In a similar vein, if I believed that Jesus was simply executed, it would not mean the same thing as Jesus having offered himself. The offering is essential to our understanding of Resurrection – which is the ultimate revelation of sacrament. In Jesus, God offers Himself, joining our humanity in suffering, so that we might be transformed and able to join Him in His divinity.

    (Father Stephen – I apologize if I’ve mangled your ideas. Your post is thought-provoking and I will want to take more time to re-read it; even then I am sure I will not fully understand it. Most profound.)

  13. mary benton Avatar

    (Father Stephen’s response was not on my screen when I composed my comment – better said by him than me.)

  14. Dante Avatar

    Father, I must say I found this very inspiring. The idea that the universe is gifted through us and our ability to worship via language, that we are its way of giving an offering back to God, is quite attractive. It reminded me very much of the Franciscan John Duns Scotus and his position on the inevitability of the Incarnation. As I understand him, he believed the Incarnation was the perfection of love for God exhibited by Creation as much as God’s gift to mankind, an offering given back to the original giver. Please do not take this the wrong way, but it also reminds me of Father Teilhard de Chardin who – while very muddled in some ideas – was quite patristic in others.

  15. Karen Avatar

    Ditto what Mary said about your post, Father. Worth rereading and pondering some more. Thanks!

  16. Simon Avatar

    Father apologies if you were offended. But you did make a (thinly veiled) political statement in your post. Which was obviously picked up on by one other person who agreed with that view. The paragraph in question was quoted with approval (when you mention “tax”, “welfare state” and “secularism”, these are politically charged terms). As you feel I have misunderstood you, I think your post has misunderstood what I was trying to say. I guess misunderstandings are bound to happen in a forum like this – it’s impossible to say everything you want to say about something in one blog post. We can leave it at that as you suggest.

    One clarification though. Wright, as far as I can tell, was never a member of nor connected with the British Labour Party. Happy to be corrected if wrong about this. He has represented the Church in the House of Lords – unsure of his political activity outside of this.

    To PJ and Michael thanks for the correction RE Rand and Ryan. Although I think it’s a bit disingenuous to make a sharp distinction between her novels and her ideology – her books were the most powerful vehicles for promoting her thought.

  17. PJ Avatar

    Christians, especially Catholics, have for decades critiqued the modern liberal welfare state from a position that is neither capitalistic nor socialistic.

    Consider the bold words of Dorothy Day:

    “We believe that Social Security legislation, now billed as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the idea of force and compulsion.”

    The last sentence expresses a notion similar to that offered by Father Stephen: that taxation is distinct from charity in virtue, and that state paternalism poses a danger to the health of a Christian society.

    I don’t think that Father’s political statement was “veiled” whatsoever: it was quite clear, and it is part of a long Christian tradition that advocates a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, a third way that views welfarism and corporate cronyism as combining the worst of both systems.

    At least, that’s how I read it.

  18. Karen Avatar

    Looks like a good reading to me, PJ.

  19. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    Once upon a time, the Church of England was characterised as “the Tory Party at prayer”. This was not necessarily a good thing: it was often the third and fourth sons of the gentry who entered the church for want of anything better to do; and often positions within the church were in the gift of the aristocracy (“benefices”). Moreover, one reads with embarrassment bordering on shame the defence of slavery by some 18th century prelates.

    The late and much lamented Lord Onslow once quipped: “a hundred years ago, the Church of England was pro-hunting and anti-sodomy; today, the situation is the pretty well the reverse”. And indeed – at least in the media-reality most of us inhabit and bearing in mind it is a fairly multifarious organisation – the liberal wing of the C of E today is to be identified, in my view, has majored on social and environmental action in a manner indistinguishable from centre-left parties. (Although, having said that, it has opposed proposals regarding “gay” “marriage”, mainly, I think, because it did not want to appear out of step with the Roman Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and the general public.) For example, the church recently spoke against the idea of capping housing benefit for families to £26,000 per year: yes, you did read that right. That is equivalent to the mortgage payments on a home well beyond the reach of most working people. In Britain, at this time of national deficit and debt, there is a great deal of angst about the morality of paying people enough to make idleness a reasonable taxpayer-funded lifestyle choice.

    Tom Wirght remains, however, a rather interesting case: his theology is certainly not liberal even if his politics tend to be.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Though steering clear of politics…

    These histories have a lot of layers. English Church and political history is a very interesting read – and continues to be. It has similarities to America except when it doesn’t.

    But, PJ, no I really did not mean a critique of the political system, certainly not in Dorothy Day’s vein. My “third way,” is simply to speak of the Kingdom. Governments come and go. They are good and bad. Those that are good will someday be worse. Those that are bad will someday be better. It’s simply how it goes.

    But the Kingdom of God is utterly free and unfettered by any political entity, even when they outlaw us or kill us. In Christ we are utterly free. My simple point, viz. generosity and giving of alms, is that our consideration of this fundamental sacramental act is utterly free of whatever our governments do or do not do. Be a responsible citizen if that is allowed – be a Christian citizen. But living the sacramental life is an eschatological reality. It is not bound by time or space or circumstance. That is the nature of all sacraments. Perhaps I should not have noted that governments live by coercion, in the last analysis. It seems to have created a red herring. But forget the political considerations altogether. If you want to live the priestly, sacramental life of a Christian, then learn to make everything an offering to God, including your money. If, by faith, you want to make your taxes an offering to God – go ahead. Only, don’t confuse that money with our responsibility to give alms. Taxes are not alms – that is the Tradition.

  21. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Polite society says you can talk about anything but religion and politics, but this is a farce. If you state your belief in anything, you’ve just spoken about your religion. And if you form any practices(polices) from those beliefs, you’ve just expounded on your politics.

    In this PC era the only thing thinly veiled is that we all want to create our own private universes unmolested. The problem is that we all exist within God’s universe, a God that is who has created things that simply are. We must have beliefs and policies in order to function, but we only find success in that process when we choose to embrace His rather than creating our own.

  22. Drewster2000 Avatar

    By the way, I agree with the others: another excellent post. The latest revelation for me:

    ““We are stardust… At the same time, we are the universe gathered into conscious form. In human beings, the universe has self-understanding and can speak.”

    So similar to the evolutionists’ view of creation – and yet at the opposite end of the spectrum. They would refer to us a random collection of chemicals, with the key word here being random. Whereas the truth (that you told) was a story about how God created us in the fires of the universe, gathered the elements of the stars into individual universes that can live, breathe, move – and the most important thing: respond. Our ability to say yes or no to Him seems to be our defining quality among all creation.

    God help us say yes.

  23. PJ Avatar

    “Whereas the truth (that you told) was a story about how God created us in the fires of the universe.”

    I thought we were created in the verdant and cool sanctuary of the Garden? I, for one, remain skeptical of the claims of the evolutionists. Not saying they are totally wrong — it’s just that I’m not ready to engage in radical reinterpretation of Genesis, especially since the fathers have little to no room for Darwinism. It would hardly be the first time scientists were seriously off-base, despite their flawless self-confidence.


    Sorry to misrepresent your views. Nonetheless, I approve of the initial comment!

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not prepared to reject physics (on the origin of heavier materials), and certainly not on the basis of a so-called literal reading of Genesis. I do not see a choice between Darwinism and Creationism. God created all things out of nothing. He formed us. The mechanism for that is purely up to God and not germane theologically. I certainly reject a notion of a 7,000 year old earth.

    Of course, my thoughts on Biblical interpretation, and how the fathers read Scripture (in many cases), have been stated any number of times.

  25. PJ Avatar

    I certainly don’t advocate a literal reading of Genesis, at least in the modern, fundamentalist sense of “literal.” But that doesn’t mean the only alternative is accepting contemporary scientific theories hook, line, and sinker, because those theories carry with them implications, some of which are very difficult to reconcile with basic Christian beliefs, beliefs which were until recently universally held in the Church.

    For instance, if the evolutionists’ current models are correct, then death and decay were always part of the universe. That means God created an entropic universe. Yet Scripture explicitly states otherwise.

    That is a big problem, at least in my opinion. I realize the evidence presented by (most) scientists is persuasive, but I prefer to err on the side of Scripture and Tradition, which to my eye has little room for evolution as it is currently understood. I am always looking for ways to integrate science and revelation, however, and my eyes remain open.

    We do well to remember that well into modern times, the scientific consensus favored an eternal cosmos, without beginning or end. This consensus shifted only relatively recently. Now, the scientific model looks quite Biblical. Who knows therefore what the future holds regarding the origins of life, especially human life?

    Basically, I’m not dogmatic on the issue. I’m just very cautious.

  26. dinoship Avatar

    a very good point that many people stumble upon, re- pre-fall death, I have struggled with in the past.
    And yes, science is indeed not infallible.
    However, according to St Maximus’ thinkng and Athanasius’ too, as well as many more contemporary theologians, the existence of death prior to the fall does (paradoxically) not necessarily negate the sudden “entry” of death through Adam’s fall – as if for the first time. In other words, you can certainly believe in a non dying Adam who priestfully transmits the life he receives through his union with Life himself unto all of creation and then looses this with the Fall, while accepting that death predates Adam and is part of the very essence of all creation, it is an inherent aspect of being brought from non-being into being and depending upon someone outside of you (the “One Who truly exists” – Ὁ ¨Ων) to keep you existing…
    All of creation is brought from nothing and therefore has death inherent inside of it in this Maximian way of thinking. Only the uncreated God has life inherent in Him.
    It was given to Adam and Eve to have the possibility of eternal life through grace and union with the uncreated Creator, the only source of eternal life, despite their createdness (‘mortality by nature’ – “entropy”)
    This possibility/potential of eternal life without the taste of death and corruption was taken away when man turned from having God for his God to having his ego as his god, thus following the path that had already been walked by the enemy…
    The one Who trampled death through tasting death was indeed Life Himself and our union with Him grants us eternal life, even though it does this through our tasting of death…

    This sounds fairly confusing I am afraid but I am no writer or theologian just a simple orthodox believer.

  27. dinoship Avatar

    In view of the above, a succinct definition of immortality would be “communion of the created with the Uncreated” and mortality would simply be the lack of that communion.
    We need to keep in mind that it is Man who is the only bridge for this communion with the rest of creation!

  28. PJ Avatar


    Thanks for your insight. You are indeed describing quite an Athanasian scheme. However, his is but one interpretation, and from my own reading it was and is not normative.

    Modern people, even devout Christians, find it very easy to trust science. This is not unreasonable, given its manifest benefits. However, we must not forget that the intellect was darkened by the fall, and that the intellect of the unbeliever in particular is cloudy with vanity and error.

    As I said, I don’t deny the science of evolution and the origins of life, I just have difficulty seeing how it fits with the faith, and so I set much of it aside, resting instead in Scripture and Tradition. I’ll keep on studying and considering, of course …

  29. dinoship Avatar

    This ‘Athanasian’ world view is also extremely compatible with the experience of the Hesychast beholders of God’s uncreated Light. It is as if the ones who truly delve deep inside Man and inside God come to realise the extent of creation’s deathliness, when apart from God, as well as how totally and utterly God is the only source of Life.
    We can say this all we like, but it is different to feel it in your very bones: “He is everything, we are nothing”.
    I also agree that the majority of unbelieving scientists are quite prone to creating theories based on their findings (right or wrong) that are actually driven (consciously or unconsciously) by their “beliefs”

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The biggest problem with modern evolution is that it is expressly and contentiously anti-theist and founded on a philosophy of philosophical materialism. To accept such a philiosphy and modern evolutinary thought requires complete denial of all that is Christian. A few of the specifics: a belief in the self-organization of matter, a percept which St. Athanasius and others expressly reject. In addition, one would have to go completely against the theology of St. Maxiums in which he posits that each created thing has a specific identity created in it by God.

    BTW there is zero proof that any organism has evolved from a prior, simpler organism which in-turn evolved from some form of primordial soup. (or was delivered by aliens). The links keep going missing.

    Personally, I have great difficulty in harmonizing a God of ‘mechanism’ with a God of Love who creates out of nothing simply to share His life in communion with His creation sacramentally

    Matter, in modern evolution has no place for communion with God, nor is it needed and man is merely a highly evolved species, nothing more than well organized matter here by chance. It is explicitly anti-sacramental. But somehow, that all goes away when someone brings in God as the actor behind it all. A magic wand is waved and ‘poof’ God did it–even though nothing else has changed in the thought.

    Big problems here and, Fr. Stephen’s comment notwithstanding, there are immense theological implications particularly anthropologically. This science is so far beyond what can be considered proper science. It cannot be tested or experimented with and the so-called evidence is pre-judged to fit into the already accepted paradigm. Anything outside the paradigm is not considered evidence. A good deal of the most spectacular ‘evidence’ in the early 20th Century was fabricated with the help and media savy of the heretic Catholic priest: de Chardin. It is observation and speculation driven, all to often, by a social and cultural desire to destroy Christian morality and replace it with a nihilistic hedonism or some kinda of new age cosmic mysticism that denies both the Person and sacramental reality of God.

    You do well PJ to be extremely cautious and highly skeptical of any ‘science of origens’.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, where was the lead picture taken? It appears that my brother is in it (the white bearded priest standing to the right with his arms up-raised. Looks an awful lot like him any way. Just wondering.

  32. PJ Avatar


    Surely no one here embraces the atheistic materialism of your Dawkins or Dennett. I think the question is whether Christianity allows for so-called “theistic evolution.” You are right, however, when you say that it is strange that a personal God of Love would bring about his beloved children through some mechanism that is inherently destructive (survival of the fittest, natural selection, etc). That said, God is nothing if not strange.

    I accept the possibility of theistic evolution, it’s just that most every reason for embracing such a theory lies outside the domain of Scripture and Tradition. That certainly makes me pause.

  33. Dante Avatar

    I disagree that evolution is inherently atheistic. In some ways, evolution could be seen as an extension of a very biblical scheme – that of election. Just as God has chose Abraham as patriarch of Israel out of all the world and hinged Creation’s future upon him, one could say Adam was chosen as a representative from his predecessors in Creation and gifted with the divine life – delivered from his natural entropy into uncreated theosis with God which he subsequently lost.

    Just from Irenaeus’ idea that Adam was not a perfected human as Christ was, perhaps Adam himself was in progress towards Christ and did not possess the Pauline “spiritual body” – a gift which he was lost and what the biblical writer called the “tree of life.”

    On human death, St. Augustine seems to take this view:

    “He was mortal … by the constitution of his natural body, and he was immortal by the gift of his Creator. For if it was a natural body he had, it was certainly mortal because it was able to die, at the same time immortal by reason of the fact that it was able not to die. Only a spiritual being is immortal by virtue of the fact that it cannot possibly die; and this condition is promised to us in the resurrection. Consequently, Adam’s body, a natural and therefore mortal body, which by justification would become spiritual and therefore truly immortal, in reality by sin was made not mortal (because it was that already) but rather a dead thing, which it would have been able not to be if Adam had not sinned.” (pg. 204-205, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis)

    Just my thoughts. God bless.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    Dante, PJ, Michael, et al,
    The general tendency in the fathers on creation-related matters would easily be described as rather literal. One reason for this is that the topic is not actually the subject of their thought but is only ancillary to something else. However, within Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor, and a few others, where the attention is turned rather directly to the topic, there are very different possible treatments. Considering the model of an unfolding design (to use a felicitous phrase) that is compatible with aspects of current science was not in their world-view, it is interesting that some aspects of their teaching would allow for it.

    St. Maximus is probably the most profound writer in the entire area of creation, and, I would treat him as the most definitive father on the topic. Patristics is not a matter of “this father says this” and “this father says that.” They are by no means of equal weight on all topics. Maximus is only slowly being restored to his rightful place. For years, English has lacked very definitive and comprehensive studies. When I was in seminary (in the 70’s) there was all of about 1 volume available. For Gregory Palamas, there was one or two volumes. Thus English-speaking Orthodox thought has itself been maturing at a slow pace.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    All of modern scientific evolution denies many essential beliefs of Christianity: 1. there is no creation ex nihilo, and 2: everything is material which follows from #1. If we are to just add God to the modern paradigmn as many ‘theistic evolutionists do we still have a problem.

    Either God created out of nothing or he organized pre-existing matter, or there is not God and matter is self-organizing. The fourth possibility that God created out of nothing at then some sort of process took over is periously close to deism.

    One could, I suppose, imagine that God is continutally speaking the word and continually bringing into existence, but where then is His rest?

    Philosophical materialism and the many man-made wonders and technologies that have been wrought on the basis of that philosophy have corrupted us all. Despite our attempts to go beyond it, we are all linear and process oriented to some degree.

    It is much easier for me to imagine a world in which God, as a master musician doing riffs on a theme and each theme being a new part of His creation all inter-related, filled with His life and to be ordered by us in harmony with God’s will since we are the only living soul in His image.

    When one adds in the fact that modern evolutionary thought was begun specifically with the hope that an alternative to Chrisitan morality and Christian thought could be found, I just do not see any compatibility. Nor does there need to be any. The mystery of creation is simply not a fit scientific study.

  36. PJ Avatar

    Isn’t the “Big Bang” essentially something from nothing, and isn’t that precisely why the scientific community initially spurned it?

  37. dinoship Avatar

    “modern evolutionary thought was begun specifically with the hope that an alternative to Chrisitan morality and Christian thought could be found”
    does make you wonder…!
    There are many faithful Christian scientists out there; however, there is a greater amount of scientists (and an even greater amount of Media projected scientists) that are faithless. Scientific findings are unfortunately influenced more and more by various predetermined agendas. One example would be the economic/financial influence exerted by a multi-billionaire funding research into, say, extraterrestrial life, amino-acids etc on comet remains, who funds the research more while it is going the way he is hoping, and withdraws the funds when it goes the opposite direction.

    When science sticks to its proper domain and religion to its own however, (as has always been traditional in the Eastern Orthodox world in the past) these ‘issues’ all disappear.

    In the West science is usurping metaphysics and religion more and more; while religion is trying to play scientist! This is not just distinctly not Orthodox, it’s plain wrong.

  38. dinoship Avatar

    Science does indeed say, as far as I know, in its majority that before the ‘singularity’ from which the ‘Big Bang’ time-space start we cannot go…
    However, there are many non-believing scientists out there that are frantically trying to create a theories to explain the unexplainable -without God in the equation-, even if this requires theories crazier than the superstring multiuniverse theory… It is difficult not to feel sorry for them sometimes when you see that they are ready to believe in absolutely anything other than the Truth!

    I remember a conversation between a very famous scientist (atheist) and a monk at Simonopetra monastery. He was confessing that science wants to explain everything but it cannot ever accept God in the equation or it would not be science.
    The funny thing is that when God touches these people and sets them free from their entrapment, they suddenly seem to leave the spotlight (as far as the media in Europe is concerned at least)

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    No,the big bang has always been something from something, it was initially rejected because the prevailing cosmological theory at the time was a ‘steady-state’ theory which did not allow for the expansion necessitated by the big bang.

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    Just because evolutionary thought was picked up by non-believers (I don’t think that it is correct to say that it was founded to get rid of belief) doesn’t make it useless.

    We hold that God created the world out of nothing. A number of physicists, despite the difficulties, argue for something like that. Some would like some version of an eternal universe (such as “multiple universes”) to avoid the nothing/something problem.

    We hold that “in Him we live and move and have our being,” thus God does not create and back off – He sustains all things in their existence. Nothing has self-existence other than God (cf. St. Athanasius).

    I live in a city with a relative large number of particle physicists (we have the Spallation Neutron Source Collider in Oak Ridge and a lot of other particle work). Believe me, many of them are not very linear. Linearity doesn’t play well around here.

    I really like the imagery of music and the universe as a seriously, seriously amazing fugue – with unbelievable counter-melodies that you cannot imagine possibly being resolved and yet they do, etc. You’ve seen my article on Why Does God Sing?

    The unfolding of the universe – from sub-sub-atomic particles to the present complexities, its complete interrelatedness, even the wonderful symphony of biological life with its strange dance of DNA and the like all offer a level of complexity that beggar the imagination and the ability of science (or thought) to grasp. We can only wonder. I not only wonder at it, but seek to embrace the wonder that in all of that complexity (let’s throw the time stuff in as well) my salvation is being worked out by a good God. It is utterly beyond wonder.

    The linearity of lay science and the near linearity of reactionary versions of Christianity both leave me without wonder.

  41. dinoship Avatar

    It is a very good thing, I find, that post quantum science, especially astrophysics, challenges our human rational capbilities to comprehend the created world, undermining arrogant ‘scientific’ notions that science might have the answers to all that exists… It reminds me of what happened with Babel.
    “The incomprehensibility of creation and the communion with the uncreated”, was a fabulous talk (I do not know if it exists in English) given by the astrophysicist and geneticist Metropoitan Nikolaos Chatzinikolaou expounding on these subjects authoritatively.

  42. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    I’m not sure the idea of Big Bang was ever spurned; originally proposed theoretically it lacked any supporting evidence until the observation, by Hubble, that all galaxies appear to us to be receding (and the more remote they are from us the faster they appear to be moving); secondly Penzias and Wilson’s detection of the cosmic microwave background. The British scientist Fred Hoyle argued in favour the steady state idea, mainly because it was his idea.

    I have heard some Christians argue that the speed of light is variable to account for the red-shift of light from remote galaxies. Talk about requiring unreachable standards of evidence from your opponents whilst believing any old rubbish yourself!

    Kant’s First Antinomy posited the mutually exclusive ideas of (a) a universe infinite in space and time and (b) a universe finite in both space and time. He then reasoned that both resulted in a contradiction! The first, because had the universe existed from all infinity, an infinite amount of time would have elapsed before we got here today – which cannot happen; the second fails since before time existed, nothing could ever happen, so nothing which was not could ever become.

    I suspect both Christians and non-Christians would disagree with Kant on precisely the second point: something manifestly did happen!

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    Something happening…that would explain a lot!

  44. Andrew_C Avatar

    … just as I was about to unfold that mystery, I had to go and collect my kids from school …

  45. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “The linearity of lay science and the near linearity of reactionary versions of Christianity both leave me without wonder.”

    I remember as a child being taught that everything was made of matter. “What is matter?” I asked. I never was satisfied with the answer, of course, because no one could really tell me what everything was made of.

    When we try to use our poor human constructs to describe either the glory of God or the magnificence of His creation, we can only scratch the surface at best. This is OK – unless we fail to realize that that is all we’ve done. If we think we’ve understood, we close ourselves off to the wonder of Life revealing Himself in, around and through us.

    The symphony, the dance – you said it well, Father Stephen.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    (I don’t think that it is correct to say that it was founded to get rid of belief). Father, both Dariwn’s grandfather, Wallace, and Darwin himself wrote about their desire to find a replacement for the Christian worldview. I’ve read their words, just can’t pull up the references right now.

    From Huxley down to Gould, Hitchens and Dawkins, evolutionists have specifically targeted Chrisitan sexual morality and promoted the idea that belief in God is archaic and un-evolved.

    Ernst Haeckel in Germany picked up Darwin’s thought and created a pre-cursor to Nazism that was an entire new neo-pagan relgion. That could be considered an aberation, but there was no scientific outcry at all. Instead those who were attempting to conduct science from a Christian understanding were, as today, pilloried and humiliated. That’s the history.

    As you allude to, there has been a great deal of work by non-fundamentalists top level scientists of late disputing the primary assumptions of modern evolutionary thought. That is hopeful, but a lot of garbage needs to be taken out.

    The last half of the 19th century produced a wave of nihilist thought whose main purpose was to revalue the understanding of humanity in a non-Christian way. The modern idea of evolution is big part of that. We are living today with the fruits of the transvaluation of humanity that was preached-economically, socially, psychologically and sexually.

    In the U.S. such ideas are deeply imbeded in our literary/philosophical corpus from Emerson on. Emerson’s Transcendentalism was positively Nietschean in much of its content.

    Several years ago, a young man raised in my parish who had gone on to become a top astro-physicist gave a brief lecture on his work at my parish. One of the astounding things he said (paraphrasing) was that God was useful until we humans reached a higher level of understanding. Sooner or later, God would not be necessary to explain things.

    The modern idea of evolution is a chief driver of these Godless philosophies. It is not that such ideas were ‘picked up’ by unbelievers, they were designed, created and propogated by unbelievers.

    Science can and should be done from a point of acceptance of the traditional Christian revelation and paradigm (which excludes most of Protestantism, IMO). It would be better science.

    When our love of the natural world and our desire to understand its mysteries replaces our love of God and our desire for communion with Him, we are in big trouble. That, IMO, is at the heart of the biological evolutionary model that still prevails and is taught as essential in understanding all of science. We need to be very careful with the ideas coming from the scientistic establishment on such things. There is a big hook attached that we don’t want to swallow.

    My son loves biology, he wants to study it, but already in the beginning stages of that study, he has had to face overt, direct challenges to his faith.

    Are there useful ideas in the ideas of evolution? Whatever truth is there is already in the Church, we just need to find them and articulate them, not import them.

  47. dinoship Avatar

    you certainly have a very good point. I feel sorry for your son and all the sons of these generations, however, I am also confident in God’s providence and trust that just as “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”, so too, in our times God’s people -such as your son- will shine all the more brightly amidst the surrounding darkness…

  48. dinoship Avatar

    Concerning God’s description of creation as “very good” I noticed today (Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of the Lord), that many fathers seem to perceive this as actually only ever having reached its true fulfilment at the birth of the Mother of God…
    In slightly more recent fathers (Nikodemus/Palamas) St. Anne’s bareness which was today ‘overthrown’ is one and the same with the bareness of all creation which stopped the day that the Theotokos was born…

  49. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    “When our love of the natural world and our desire to understand its mysteries replaces our love of God and our desire for communion with Him, we are in big trouble.”

    I’m not disputing what you’ve said about the intent of different scientific thinkers – since I don’t their intent. While I agree with the above assertion, I think to go to the opposite extreme would also be an error (to renounce the natural world and the desire to understand its mysteries). For God created a beautiful, intricate world for us and has endowed us with curious intellects to explore it. Almost anything (both religion and science) can be perverted but that doesn’t mean that they always are. I personally find ideas of evolution (not saying specifically Darwin) to be faith-enhancing as it reveals the immensity of God’s creative power and wisdom.

    Evolving is a reminder that creation was not a static event in history but a constant process – and we are invited participants in the creative process. Perversion of the process results in devolving – something we are certainly at risk for under the influence of sin. But we are invited to be and become so much more…

  50. dinoship Avatar

    Evolution or not, the key notion is that science only ever answers (when it even does that) the HOW or the WHEN of creation, it can never answer the WHO or the WHY which is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit..
    Besides, wasn’t it L. Pasteur who used to say that, a bit of ‘science’ can increase one’s distance from God, whereas true science brings one closer to Him?

  51. PJ Avatar

    “Evolving is a reminder that creation was not a static event in history but a constant process”

    Don’t let Alice Linsley hear you say this! 😉

  52. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Don’t know Alice. I googled her and found I wasn’t so interested in the theoretical arguments. My point is that creation is infused with the Divine and therefore is ever living and growing according to His purpose – unless, of course, we screw it up, an option God has given us. Fortunately, we also have the option of participating in the Divine creativity by following Jesus. The laws of love further true evolution. They are not separate from the laws of true science – it just that we aren’t far enough along to have reached true science.

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think what we can say, particularly following St. Basil the Great and St. Maximus the Confessor, is that creation is dynamic rather than static. “Evolution” represents a particular theory – Darwin’s version is survival of the fittest. I think his account is insufficient. I do not think the universe is the result of such brutality. It is so rich! St. Maximus working on change, becoming, movement, etc., would tend to want to speak more about what it is to be human as being a movement in a particular direction. In that sense, everything in creation can be described in such a manner. Evolution is not the word I would use for that. “Movement,” particularly in its patristic, Greek sense, works very well (especially when we add “direction” to it). “Evolution” in that sense is perhaps not rich enough – though I have some microbiologist friends I would have to discuss this with.
    It is also clear to me that many Christians are very far removed from the richness of St. Basil and St. Maximus. Their universe is boring and implausible.

  54. dinoship Avatar

    I think that mankind should never aspire to any utopian dreams of ever “reaching true science.”, the answers are not provided through any science (to WHO and WHY, maybe sometimes to the how and when), -it sounds extremely “theosophical” (a la Helena Blavatsky)- the answer is Christ and in His Light there are no questions left to answer. We can call that the names that the Lord used for Himself, Life, Light etc. but not science…

  55. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I agree, of course. What I was suggesting was that there can be no disconnect between God and “true science” (as a hypothetical construct).

    In our human limitations, we cannot perfectly understand God; through systematic study (aka science), we cannot perfectly understand the operations of the universe. Yet God and the operations of the universe are, of course, completely in harmony. It is our understanding that is not.

    If I had to choose between only striving to know God or only studying science, of course I would choose the former. But I don’t have to choose because, approached with a pure heart, both can deepen our experience of the Divine. (Approached wrongly, both can lead to sin and error.)

    I actually do not study science as much as many of you do (or at least your comments indicate more knowledge than I have). When I wrote of “evolution”, I am using the term in its general sense (positive growth over time, with implication of greater complexity and interdependence). I used the term “devolve” as its opposite, to describe the corrupted process. We are given the freedom to participate in the creative evolution (through love, leading to greater interdependence) or “devolution” (through sin, leading to fragmentation, war, corruption).

    I choose to participate in the creative evolution – and am now off to church to praise our God. Blessings.

  56. dinoship Avatar

    Thank you Mary, i agree.

  57. Dee Avatar

    “If I had to choose between only striving to know God or only studying science, of course I would choose the former.”
    how true!
    The scientific genius is like a fast car, but the life of the Church is akin to a Rocket…
    There is no comparison between the study of God’s creation (no matter how wondrous it might be) and the communion with His Person.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Matthew, Christ said, “…For indeed the kingdom of God is within you”. (Luke 17:21 We don’t bring it on. We…

  2. Fr. Stephen … I want to better understand the kingdom of God … what exactly it is, has it already…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast