Justice Enough?

The human desire for justice is insatiable. And that is a problem. It is a problem because an insatiable desire can never be satisfied: there is no end to our desire for justice. It is a problem because many Christians use justice as a lens for understanding the work of our salvation. The fathers have a term for insatiable desires: passions. What human beings experience as a desire for justice is not a virtue – it is a passion, a disordered desire of the soul.

Virtues, the desires that are rightly ordered, have a proper end to their desire. They can be satisfied because they have a proper end. The experience of hunger, when rightly ordered, is perfectly natural and is able to know and experience a sense of completion. Enough is enough. When hunger is disordered it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused. The result is gluttony – experienced by too much or too little food. I recall a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who said that the problem with alcohol was that “there was never enough.”

The Law in the Old Testament recognized the disordered character of human justice. It placed limits on our desire for justice. The Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is not a prescription for what must be paid for an injury: it is a limit on the maximum that may be extracted. Our desire for justice is never satisfied with an eye for an eye. We would like two eyes, a hand, a foot, an electronic ankle bracelet and 6 million dollars in punitive damages (and even then we are not actually satisfied).

This disordered desire for justice becomes deeply disturbing when cast in the role of theologian. Most versions of the “penal substitutionary model” of the atonement begin with an assertion regarding God’s justice. The requirements of that offended justice are considered infinite. Man’s sin against God is somehow deemed to be “infinite.”

…if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, “The Eternity of Hell Torments” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

Edwards is slightly antique, but his reasoning continues to be standard fare for those who teach the penal substitution theory. His reasoning appears flawless. Our obligation to God is infinite, so its violation is infinite. Infinite crime warrants and infinite punishment: ergo eternity in the torments of hell.

The flaws in this reasoning are an important matter. But more important, and of greater consideration in this article, are the human desires that surround justice itself. I understand the desires we have – my family has endured two murders over the course of my lifetime. I know what it is to want justice. But, in fact, there is nothing that can be done to satisfy that desire. For what I want (what all of us want), is for the event never to have happened. No amount of punishment is sufficient to counterbalance the crime. The death of a murderer does not equal the death of an innocent. When all is said and done, two people are dead. That is not justice – it is just sadness upon sadness.

St. Isaac of Syria famously said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” The parables of Christ give an illustration of God’s justice. To the unjust servant who owed his master 10,000 talents, the Master demands that he be thrown in prison. When the servant asks for more time to pay his debt, the response is the cancellation of the entire debt. How is that just? As for mercy, it is beyond anything we can imagine. The master grants not more time, but no debt! (Matt. 18) The judgment meted out in the parable is not about the debt, but about the servant’s own lack of mercy.

Edward’s contention that our obligation to God is “infinite,” goes back at least as far as Anselm’s infinite offense to God’s honor. The reasoning seems to be that because God is “infinite,” those things that are owed to him (our obligations) are infinite. Of course, infinite is a problematic category to apply to a creature, who is, by definition, finite. Created with an infinite debt, finite creatures cannot do otherwise than burn in hell eternally. Infinite is simply an inappropriate adjective to use in our relationship with God. It brings inappropriate and incommensurate results in its train. It is more accurate to say of our relationship to God, and those things that belong to it, that they are “immeasurable.” What is required is not without limit (for the infinite cannot be required of the finite), but it is beyond our finite ability to measure.

This is a far more accurate way to approach the justice of God. His justice is not properly described as infinite (what would that mean?). His justice is inscrutable – we simply cannot know it, fathom it, or understand it. It is a useless concept when it comes to understanding our obligations to God. God is just – because He is not unjust. But what it means to say that “God is just,” is beyond our ken.

The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing about God’s justice, is a God who is not worthy of worship. There are those who not only glibly consign sinners to hell, but also postulate that the righteous will rejoice in the torment of sinners because of their delight in the goodness of God’s justice. Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions. Those who embrace such heresy have their soul’s perverted desire for infinite justice confirmed. Such theology does not heal the soul – it corrupts it further and feeds its passions.

St. Isaac draws us in the right direction. Though we cannot know, fathom or understand God’s mercy, such ignorance should not limit our trust. God is a “good God who loves mankind.” He is philanthropos.

Our salvation is rightly understood through the lens of God’s mercy and not through His justice.

Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin…. Descending through the Cross into hell—that he might fill all things with Himself—He loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption. So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born of the dead, that He might be Himself truly the first in all things (Liturgy of St. Basil).

The Eucharistic prayers of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, summations of atonement understanding par excellence, are virtually mute on the subject of justice. At most, St. Basil acknowledges the justice of our expulsion from paradise. Our rescue, however, is not achieved by justice, but by the merciful descent of Christ God into hell. Even St. Basil’s mention of ransom, has nothing of justice about it. For a ransom is not a just payment, but the unjust demand of the wicked.

Our passions do not give us an accurate read on the world. They are the insatiable torments of the soul. Whenever they become a force in our lives we find ourselves in torment. The greed of a lover’s jealousy, the madness of gambling, the thirst for alcohol – all of our various addictions – have the character of torment precisely because they are desires that cannot be fulfilled. It is not uncommon in the modern world to treat some infinite passions as noble: the desire for justice or fairness. But it is not accidental that such passions have been the fuel of obscene revolutions and mass murder. It only becomes more obscene if such “noble” passions are ascribed to God.

His mercy endures forever.







About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






114 responses to “Justice Enough?”

  1. Sam Avatar

    Thank you Father.

  2. Vincent Avatar

    Wonderful thoughts, thank you, Father!

  3. dinoship Avatar

    Wonderful indeed Father! Thank you!
    It seems that one part of the problem is that, in Western heretical thought, God is somehow the One Who must change!! As if our transformation, or even our “acceptance” of Him and nothing more, (in some belief systems) is only required so that He can change! (from “angry” to merciful(…)
    Orthodox thinking knows no such position however, it is all about the ontological (not behavioural) change of “me”. God does not change, his mercy endureth forever. He is the sun of justice, as it is written, who shines rays of goodness on simply everyone. and always. We are the ones that change into either mud/clay or wax (according to St Maximus)

  4. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I equate you to one who goes over to Africa and distributes food and medical supplies to the poor. Only, your ministry is in North America and you are dispensing what are rare commodities here: wisdom and common sense. Just as a person can’t lift themselves off the ground, so people who live in the dark can’t see that fact until light plays upon them – and then they may retreat in fear because they are now unfamiliar with it.

    I see light and hear beautiful music when you write (metaphorically speaking). And to be honest, at those moments it wouldn’t matter if you hailed as an Orthodox, a Buddhist, or a pagan priest. As one saying goes, “Truth, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit.”

    So often your words are light to my darkness. I thank God for your ministry. May God grant you many years! I would selfishly like you to be around for a long time, that we may have the benefit of your counsel and wisdom.

    God bless, drewster

  5. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    You said, “When hunger is disordered it cannot rightly discern its end. The desire for food becomes confused. The result is gluttony…”

    Would you say the result of the desire of justice turned into a passion would be hatred?

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    IMO, Shakespeare said it best: from Portia’s speech in the Merchant of Venice Act 4, Scene 1.

    “In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation, so I beg you…have mercy”

  7. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Would you please comment on Deuteronomy 19:20-21 where the “eye for eye” code is stated by it is preceded by a comment about “showing no pity.”

    When i first read something you wrote earlier, this “setting a maximum” made so much sense. But the “show no pity” sounds like it’s establishing a minimum. How do we reconcile these?



  8. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I noticed in the Culture tab across the top that “secularism” is the only category that isn’t capitalized. Was that a sneaky way of making a statement? Or was that simply a typographical error? (grin)

  9. PJ Avatar


    Go back a little further you and you’ll read, “And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.”

    It seems that this was an attempt to minimize evil by setting an example. I don’t think that “have no pity” means that the punishments should be carried out in a vindictive and cruel spirit, but rather that the Israelites must not hesitate to observe the law fairly, lest justice not be served and anarchy reign.

    Much of Deuteronomy is disturbing or confusing unless you understand that its precepts are specific to Bronze Age Israel. We know that the Mosaic Law does not represent the will of God, as Jesus’ discussion on divorce makes clear.

    That said, parts of Deuteronomy, as well as Leviticus and so on, still cause me to raise an eyebrow. The Pentateuch is a little rough around the edges. Read apart from tradition, it will inevitably create an atheist or a theonomist. I don’t know which is worse.

    I’m not exactly sure what the faithful, orthodox Christian is obligated to believe about the Mosaic Law. I mean, just how inspired must we believe it to be?

    Thankfully, thanks in part to Father Stephen, we all recognize that the Crucified and Risen Christ is the lens through which the rest of Scripture is understood. The incarnation is the primary theophany, and the Beatitudes are the most authentic expression of holy living, so every other theophany and legal code must be examined in their wonderful light.

  10. Reid Avatar

    Solomon asked of the Lord wisdom to be able to administer justice, and the Lord was pleased to grant that request. Soon thereafter Solomon demonstrated his divinely-granted wisdom in perhaps the most celebrated act of justice in history.

    It has often struck me that this act consisted not of punishing an evildoer but of returning a child to his prostitute mother.

  11. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    “The result of the distortions caused by faulty theologizing… Those with normal human sensibilities are repulsed by such notions.” – That is a weighty statement considering how few are actually repulsed by it. It is one of the main reasons that I left Christianity and became agnostic. I cannot believe that if there is a personal god that he would be a worse person than me.

    “Our salvation is rightly understood through the lens of God’s mercy and not through His justice.” – Either way, it implies a kind of guilt. Upon what is that guilt based?

    This is the best article I have read from a Christian. Ever. I have actually never seen one like it. That alone is cause to be very depressed by the state of modern Christianity.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    The result of the desire-for-justice-turned-passion indeed produces anger, if not hate. It is a commonplace among contemporary therapists, that the notion of “fairness” is inherently tied to anger. To provoke anyone about something that is not “fair” is to provoke them to anger. So-called “unrequited justice” is synonymous with anger and hatred. It burns within us and calls out to us from the ground. It turns crowds into mobs and feeds the fires of hell.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    PJ’s thoughts are good. However, the translation, “show no pity,” is fairly lousy. It is closer in meaning to “your eye shall not regard.” In this sense it is a warning not to show partiality (to have regard for the rich, etc.). The maximum of eye for eye remains. Of course, Christ radically reinterprets the Mosaic commands by turning to the character of the heart. Thus in John 8, he protects the woman caught in the act of adultery, preventing the commandment for stoning to be carried out. It has long been recognized that the lex talionis sets a maximum punishment. In Sharia law, which uses the lex talionis in many cases, a family of a victim can forgive the criminal and refuse recrimination. Thus, a murderer can go free if forgiven by the victim’s family. I knew of a case in Saudi Arabia a few years back in which two men (foreign nationals) attacked a store-keeper beat him and robbed him. The storekeeper died as a result. The men were found guilty. One day they were beaten (for the beating they gave the man). The next day they each had a hand cut off for the theft. The next day they were beheaded for the man’s death. The eye for eye was quite specific. No more, no less. Christ overturns this and enjoins us with the Kingdom of God.

  14. PJ Avatar


    If this sort of material is unfamiliar to you, I urge you to investigate the writings of the Church Fathers, especially the Syrians such as Isaac and Ephraim, as well as the Cappadocians, such as Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. The themes Fr. Stephen touches on are also present in contemporary writers, such as the Elder Sophrony and Archimandrite Zacharias. The centuries in between these two groups are also littered with writers who are alive with a sense of God’s mercy and love: John of Kronstadt, Thomas Merton, Mother Mary of Paris, Kallistos Ware, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Clement of Alexandria, Hans Urs von Balthasar, St. Benedict St. Symeon the New Theologian, Macarius of Egypt, Henri de Lubac, Aidan Nichols, Matthew the Poor, Irenaeus, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius the Great, Jean Daniélou, Simon Weil, Edith Stein, and many more. Every one of these luminaries has a distinctive flavor. Some of them are a bit uneven in terms of orthodoxy, but overall they will surely renew your understanding of the ancient apostolic faith.

    Then again, you could just read St. Paul without any presuppositions (as far as that is possible). I think you’d be surprised with what you find. I know I was when I did so after 10 years of “Catholic” school.

    This blog is a great resource to explore a side of Christianity that is not well known in America, where the life and death of Christ are understood primarily in the tradition of the Reformers.

    “Either way, it implies a kind of guilt. Upon what is that guilt based?”

    The problem is existential as much as it is “legal.” To sin is to turn away from God, who is Life. By sinning we reject communion with the Existent One, and thus become subject to death. Through Christ, whose Body we comprise, we are reconciled with the Father. We again partake of the divine nature by becoming sons in the Son through the Spirit.

    I heartily recommend “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius. It is available online. It is brief and compelling.

    God bless.

  15. PJ Avatar

    Father, what about my question: “I’m not exactly sure what the faithful, orthodox Christian is obligated to believe about the Mosaic Law. I mean, just how inspired must we believe it to be? “

  16. dinoship Avatar

    John Shores,
    “Upon what is this guilt based?”
    Until I realise that my problem is that my god is not God but my ego, I cannot truly have God for my God, whether I am a believer an agnostic or an atheist…
    Who has such lack of self-centredness? If he does, then he is on the path that can lead to the fulfilment of the first commandment.
    Truth be told, a true atheist who is honest and genuine with his existential questioning would, at the very least, be led to a Sartrian suicide due to the unbearable futility of such an existence, especially when avoiding the comfortably numbing drug of distraction.
    The meaning of life, on the other hand, which the unbeliever cannot enjoy, could be called by many names, but suffice to call it ‘encountering God’. (His name Logos in Greek does also have the definition of “the meaning” amongst many others).
    Encountering God brings the self-centred individual who has himself for a God face to face with the fact that he has usurped God’s position, that his sin has cosmic dimensions and repercussions and that God overlooks all of this lovingly…
    This last point (God’s unfathomable and mind-blowingly unconditional love) more than the other points, naturally produces a feeling of guilt, a compunction, a sweet and sour contrition…

  17. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for taking the time to address my concerns. i too am interested in the point that PJ raised (by the way, thanks PJ for your response as well). i’m still not sure how i am to understand the relationship between the OT and NT. For instance, PJ mentions that the Mosaic Law may not be representative of God’s will. So God gave the Israelites laws that were different than how He wanted them to behave? This is perplexing to me. Are we getting into some sort of two-wills-in-God area that the reformed types like to debate about?

    Am i right in thinking that the Mosaic laws themselves were, in fact, the product of God, and in at least that sense are “inspired?” (In other words, none of the specific laws in the Mosaic code were purely inventions by Moses or some other human, right?)


  18. dinoship Avatar

    My ‘perfect’ will for my son might be that he becomes a quantum physicist, but I would give him basic maths at 6, Newtonian physics at 11 and quantum physics at 18, I would worry if he wanted to bypass all stages and jump to the last one at age 7. So, if God’s perfect will/law is for man to be like Christ, the pedagogy from the lower to this highest level is still God’s will.

  19. PJ Avatar

    “or instance, PJ mentions that the Mosaic Law may not be representative of God’s will. So God gave the Israelites laws that were different than how He wanted them to behave?”

    I think Dino is heading in the right direction.

    St. Paul, “a Hebrew of Hebrews, in regard to the Law, a pharisee … as to righteousness which is in the Law, blameless,” ultimately understood the precepts delivered through Moses as pedagogical tools. It is the nature of this pedagogy that interests me.

    Was the Law, with its neurotic attention to detail, given so as to reveal the utter uselessness of external religiosity (not to be confused with Spirit-filled liturgy)?

    Was it meant rather to isolate Israel and make it stand out among the nations, so that its purity would be maintained for pragmatic reasons?

    These are some options I’ve considered.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks deeply for “the best article I have read from a Christian.” I would readily agree that the rarity of such thought within modern Christianity is depressing. You yourself are an example of someone repulsed by lousy theology. What you are reading on this website is Eastern Orthodox Christianity (as in Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox, etc.). It is the second largest group of Christians in the world, though largely off the screen of modern Western Christians. But there are many of us (like myself) who are “refugees” from lousy theology. I became Orthodox in 1998 after 18 years as an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. I “loved” Orthodox theology from a distance for years, seeing in it the theology of the “good God” that I believed in my heart was made known in Christ. Eventually, my family and I could no longer stand to be separated from what we believed to be the truth. We have found the home in Orthodoxy that I thought “should” be true. Don’t misunderstand me – Orthodox Christians are as sinful as any others who name Christ as Lord. But they do not add to their problems by mis-portraying God. At least I don’t have to struggle against the teachings of the Church as well as my own problems.

    Mercy does not presume guilt. It’s what you would show to anyone who needed your help and kindness. “Sin” in Orthodox understanding is the process and disease of “death” at work in us because we refuse to live in communion with the God who is Life. That “death” can have moral appearances, existential appearances, etc. We don’t have a legal problem with God (He’s not a lawyer). We have a death problem. There are several articles you might find of interest. Salvation, ontology, existential and other large words is one; another is Why Morality is not Christian.

    The really good news is that I’m not saying anything new here. What I am writing is simply a presentation of Orthodox Christian thought – something that has been around for 2000 years but has been terribly obscured by modern Christianity – in all its various guises. I’m glad you like my writing – sometimes I do it well – but the only thing creative here is presentation. I really don’t want to have a new idea (other than it being new to me).

    You’re candor is refreshing and encouraging.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Don’t confuse inspiration with literal readings. Of course the OT is inspired – though Christ clearly contradicts it at points. Orthodox Christians believe it is inspired but are taught to read it correctly – through the lens of Christ. Nothing is rightly seen unless it is seen through Christ.

  22. […] concerns flooded over me as I browsed my blog feeds while waiting for lunch to come today: The [Church] fathers have a term for insatiable […]

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your question is good – and one that has been a bother to Christians in many times and places. If the Law is superseded in Christ, what was its original state? Some Christians have put forward notions of 2 covenants, operating under 2 different rules and relationships (the weirdest of these is Dispensationalism with 7 covenant, I think). One heresy declared the OT to have the product of a demon posing as God (Marcionism). We have at least one example of how Christ treated some problems.

    In Matt. 19, Christ cites the Genesis account to speak about the union of a man and a woman. The “two are one flesh” He says.

    They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

    Clearly, later Christian theories of “inspiration” (particularly those put forward by Protestant notions of Sola Scriptura) could not have allowed such a statement to be made. Doesn’t it say in the text that God gave those commandments to Moses? Here Christ seems to say Moses put the divorce thing in himself (or something similar).

    The Church has always “re-read” and “re-interpreted” the OT. This is a useful article. Its inspiration is not questioned – but many aspects of its interpretation must be understood in a Christian manner.

    The literal/historical approach, a manner of reading long associated with Western Christian thought and theory (even in its liberal forms), is by no means dominant in the Orthodox world. Thus, did God command the stoning of children? (to use an example). I would respond: this is what the text says (which is another thing completely than saying that God gave such a command). It is the text which we must interpret and use in a Christian manner. The literal/historical approach assumes that the face of the text is a claim for what God actually did. Christ would seem to contradict that at points. A number of the fathers read the OT in a similar manner.

    Those who make such claims about God have the burden on them to reconcile such statements with God as He is revealed in Christ. God is revealed in the text of the OT. But this is not clear until and unless that text is read through Christ.

    Now, the immediate question that comes to mind (that I would assume some readers would have), is “do you believe that there is a difference between what “actually happened” and what the text said happened? I point to Christ and say, “It would seem so, based on Christ’s statement.” Does this trouble me? It did once upon a time. It doesn’t now. I am content with historical puzzles (and I try to be honest about them).

    I believe and I confess that Christ was raised again from the dead. He came out of the tomb and was transformed – manifest the union of God and Man, the Uncreated and the Created. It is a central historical point which no believer should deny. But the assurance of that fact is the knowledge of the resurrected Lord. I know Christ and in that knowledge I find the faith of the Church confirmed. I read the Scriptures from Christ forward and from Christ backward. It’s the only way the world makes any sense to me.

  24. Reader John Avatar

    I was thrilled by this as I read it over lunch, not only because it corrects the bad Calvinist theology that colors so much of our common life in the U.S., but also because of what it implies for the rituals of our criminal justice system and the reporting thereof. More extensive thoughts can be found on my own blog. http://ow.ly/do8x5

  25. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Thank you for the response. “Mercy does not presume guilt. It’s what you would show to anyone who needed your help and kindness.” Ah. Sometimes I wish I had been raised Orthodox. Y’all seem to be the only people in Chritendom with either a brain or a heart.

    You may know Robert Fortuin. He is my best friend. (I am pleased to find that he is not as singular an individual as I had thought for you seem to be much like him.) We were in the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC) together in San Clemente CA. When that came crashing down, he moved on to Orthodoxy. I stopped and went through three months of pure agony investigating whether Christianity could possibly be true. I literally started on page 1 of Genesis and at the end of each section asked, “Can Christianity survive without this story?”

    In the end, it seemed to me that everything in Christianity rests on the “fall of man” story. It is a story that cannot possibly be literally true and I see no way of it being figuratively true considering that there was never a time when man had “original glory” or innocence from which he fell unless it was at some point before we had a large frontal lobe, in which case the whole story boils down to “being human is bad and only god can fix you.” I also have a great deal of trouble with the idea of a virgin human sacrifice being anything but abhorrent. Forgiveness, by its very nature, never requires it.

    Also, I have no problem with death. In my opinion, it’s a gift, not a curse. To be honest, I rather cannot wait to encounter it sometimes.

    In the end, I became agnostic. I told Robert then that “If there is a god and it is a personal god who has the slightest bit of interest in me, he (or she or it) knows where to find me and how to present himself (herself/itself) to me in a way that I can comprehend and not deny.” For me, the ethereal is far too prone to abuse – since it can’t be validated and tested. And basing a relationship on something that someone else says about a person is, in fact, no relationship at all.

    All in all, I don’t miss church or the neurosis that was part and parcel to my upbringing. Perhaps, if there is a god, one day he will bother about me. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s not up to me.

    Until that happens, I will remain devoutly substitious. I don’t believe in the things most people believe in but which nevertheless aren’t true. I believe instead in the things that are true in which few people believe. There are many such substitions, ranging from ‘It’ll get better if you don’t pick at it’ all the way up to ‘Sometimes things just happen.’ (credit to Terry Pratchett for this word and its definition)

  26. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Dinoship said “a true atheist who is honest and genuine with his existential questioning would, at the very least, be led to a Sartrian suicide due to the unbearable futility of such an existence, especially when avoiding the comfortably numbing drug of distraction.”

    One might think so but to be perfectly candid one of the first fruits of becoming agnostic was a far greater appreciation for life, this planet and the universe in which we live.

    “The meaning of life, on the other hand, which the unbeliever cannot enjoy, could be called by many names, but suffice to call it ‘encountering God’.”

    Again, I found this to be untrue. The freedom to accept things (and people) as they are has brought more meaning, not less, to life. I am not alone in this. Almost universally, those who have left Christianity entirely have expressed similar experiences and a renewed love of and purpose in life.

    Think of it in these terms. If one is under the belief that the world is passing away and they spend their life looking forward to something other (hopefully better) then their purpose and meaning are not here and now but in some future place outside of time. When you eschew such ideas, well, “life is mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” (Bonnie Raite)

  27. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    PJ Wrote: “I urge you to investigate the writings of the Church Fathers”

    sadly, that time has passed for me. I spent 43 years searching for god reaping nothing but torment and agony. As I said before, I am not interested in “knowing” someone if it is done through what others have to say about him. That would be like me telling you all about my wife and how wonderful she is and you thinking you have a relationship with her based on the stuff I have said coupled with some letters she’s written to various people. I’m not interested in anything that isn’t in fact an actual relationship.

    “This blog is a great resource to explore a side of Christianity that is not well known in America, where the life and death of Christ are understood primarily in the tradition of the Reformers.”

    I look forward to reading more. I am always pleased to encounter good men and women, whatever their beliefs may be.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    I fully understand the sense of relief and even clarity that comes from someone leaving modern Christianity. It can feel like freedom. It can even give a heightened sense of the precious quality of things. Some of this has to do with some odd perversions of modern Christian practice.

    The historical consciousness that you describe (viz. the Genesis account) is one of the perversions of modern Christianity. The linear-historical account of evangelical thought (and liberal as well) are simply unworkable and always has been. It’s just becoming more obvious with time. But a linear-historical agnosticism will prove unworkable in the long run as well, I think.

    I’m not able to reply at length tonight – but I’ve got some articles I’ll recommend for reading and thinking about in terms of historical-linear problems and Orthodox thought. In time, you might find my book worth reading (some find it useful). There’s a link on the sidebar – it’s getting cheaper and cheaper. In time, I think my publisher will be paying people to take copies. 🙂

  29. PJ Avatar


    Pope Benedict himself does not believe that Genesis 1 is “literally true.” Neither do I, though I do not adhere to the standard theory of evolution, either. There is a huge range of thought on this issue among orthodox Christians of all stripes.

    “sadly, that time has passed for me. I spent 43 years searching for god reaping nothing but torment and agony.”

    I do not wish to diminish your personal struggle, but I will say that many saints went through long — sometimes terribly long — periods of darkness before encountering the Light. You may want to look into the life of St. Silouan the Athonite. No doubt you would identify with much of his story.

    “As I said before, I am not interested in “knowing” someone if it is done through what others have to say about him. ”

    Of course not. But the great masters of the faith can teach you how to listen, that you may detect the Word amidst the white noise of the passions and the ego. I know that, for many years, I did not hear God because I did not know His voice. I only learned how it sounded through the saints, living and dead, famous and unknown. Just as one often meets a stranger through a mutual acquaintance, so I met God through the “great cloud of witnesses.”

    Just some food for thought. Thank you for your honesty and your courage to speak so frankly. I will pray that you come to know the boundless love Christ has for you. God bless.

  30. PJ Avatar


    ” I also have a great deal of trouble with the idea of a virgin human sacrifice being anything but abhorrent. ”

    I’m not sure what this refers to: the death of Christ? In that case, I hope that you reconsider the meaning of Calvary.

    The cross is the power and wisdom of God, so St. Paul tells us. This means that God is radically unlike anything man ever imagined.

    Man is haughty and prideful, and in his conceit he constructs deities to suit his temperament: deities regal and terrible, blazing with fierce glory and swollen with righteous strength. It is not therefore surprising that so many fail to find the Divine, for the True God as revealed in and by Jesus Christ is altogether different. Those looking for a king will not pause to examine the servant standing right before their eyes.

    God is not regal but humble. He is not terrible but merciful. He is glorious, strong, and righteous, but His glory is manifested in simplicity; His strength in weakness; His righteousness in tender concern. God is most perfectly revealed in the Pierced One: every other Biblical theophany must be seen in light of the cross.

    The cross, in short, is the pinnacle of God’s self-expression. By participating in His death, by emptying ourselves out, we are made fit to participate in His life, which is eternal and perfect communion-in-love.

  31. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Thank you both for your posts. I must confess that this is the first time I have received multiple responses to my thoughts that were both thoughtful and sane. To date, Robert has been one of only two rational Christians that I have known. It is obvious to me that you are kindly people with compassionate hearts.

    I hope he is reading this thread and will attest to the truth of this statement; this is the first time that I have had absolutely no argument against what has been said. Typically, I will find the absurdity in people’s statements and rail on them for being obtuse. Here, in this thread, I can find nothing of the kind.

    This is not to say that I am at all inclined to return to Christianity. A man who has escaped the dungeons will think twice before entering through the castle gate. But I do hope that I can make friends of you. And I hope, as well, that I have not and will not give offense to you.

    PJ spoke of “deities regal and terrible, blazing with fierce glory and swollen with righteous strength.” I hope you will forgive me for seeing the Christian god as such. After all, I was raised on hellfire and was a HUGE Keith Green fan back in the day and fully believed his version of Matthew 25 (and pretty much everything else). Then again, I also could do without Revelation, most of the Pauline writings, and pretty much the entire Old Testament. I have trouble enough with the Gospels alone but at least they contain some measure of the humility about which you speak. :o)

    In addition to this, I have found that morality outside of a religious context is actually fairly common. Indeed, I could make the argument that by and large atheists/agnostics are more moral than many (if not most) religious people with the added bonus of not being hypocritical. I see no great benefit to returning to Christianity, even in a rational form such as you seem to hold to. But, as I said, I am always glad and eager to find friends who are good and decent human beings. And such you seem to be.

  32. dinoship Avatar

    Orthodoxy claims to be the cure for the great “disease of religion”. God is entirely nothing like what our perverse human mind constructs, life in Him is unlike what we term “religion”.
    The life of St. Silouan does indeed attest to this in a highly personal manner…
    There is of course a sense of relief when one escapes that neurotic madness of ‘religion’, this relief is far deeper and more permanent however, when it is an escape from a lie into the Truth.
    God does indeed have a myriad ways to activate the deep personal faith in Him which lies dormant in us all, even in the person who thinks he is the greatest unbeliever…
    I concur with PJ that St. Silouan the Athonite’s quite recent experience would probably speak volumes to your heart.

  33. Bill M Avatar
    Bill M

    We need to be careful, in our zeal to draw distinctions, to not overstate the case. There are plenty of examples in the liturgies and prayers of the “regal” and “severe”. They must be understood in context, sure. And orthodoxy is both “religion” and “religious”. There is a sense in which we can say it is not “just” religion, or to point beyond the practices to the True. But better to avoid, I think, exaggerations and catchy phrases.

  34. dinoship Avatar

    Ideally, we talk differently about these things to every person we encounter; as they say, a general solution to a problem, no matter how correct, is never on a par with a personal solution.
    A good Father charms you and obliges you with his loving kindness and you then notice his noble regality, a bad one bullies you with his regal severity and then lectures you on how it was done in a spirit of love…
    God has the power to use any method correctly in his omniscience, but, as a general rule, humans only have the power -they don’t really even have that to be perfectly honest- to use the first method.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    John, I too thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns, they touch me. I think that most of us at one time or another share many of your doubts and feelings. I know that I have. Unfortunately, there is much in the Church or any other Christian communion that will reinforce your doubts and fears and exacerbate your scars. Please forgive us.

    I like what you said about wanting a real relationship, not just knowledge about someone else. That is important and crucial in seeking God. That means that you will be less likely to settle for anything less. If you genuinely seek the truth, you are seeking Him and you will be rewarded.

    I didn’t come to the Orthodox Church looking for God though. Jesus had already introduced Himself. I came looking to experience Him more deeply and more fully. However you seem to want the same thing and you seem to have a clear understanding of what the Christian faith should be: union with Christ and the change of our minds, bodies and souls that such union brings. Despite your struggles, you don’t express a lot of bitterness. That is a wonderful.

    As Bill M says, God is both regal and severe and we are both relgion and religious but even here He is not quite the way our mind thinks of these things and our religion is not quite what it seems on the surface.

    The Sacrament of Penance(Confession)is, for me, one of the clearest indicators of how the Orthodox Church approaches the mystery of communion with God, the Holy Trinity.

    At the beginning of the sacrament the priest says, “Know that you do not confess to me, a sinner, but to Christ Himself” At the end, by the authority and chrism of his office he says, “Arise, having no further care for the sins you have confessed”

    That is God’s justice I think. He allows us to condemn ourselves until we don’t and then He takes our burdens from us as we offer them to Him.

    There are two types of Christian theology. One seeks to explain about God, the other seeks to describe the union with God and share it with others in a way that will allow someone else to enter. The lives of the saints are the latter.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    “He allows us to condemn ourselves until we don’t.” I love this description of confession.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I woke up this morning with the thought that the passion of justice is rooted in our desire to be ‘right’. In our quest for justice we seek to justify our own behavior and person at the expense of others much like the Phraisee: “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this other man”

    Of course, if I am ‘right’ and you disagree with me, you are ‘wrong’ and condemned. Translated into a community such thinking becomes the insatiable desire to ‘purify’ the community of all that is ‘wrong’ so that the community will be perfect.

    I know of nothing else that is more damanging to a community or less Christian, yet it can be quite seductive and enormously difficult to overcome. There are always real, objective reasons why someone is wrong, but we foret to look in the mirror for them.

    Certainly one way to escape from such an pit is to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ an attitude that justice denies us.

    In the Merchant of Venice when Shylock refused mercy despite Portia’s eloquent plea, he suffered the full weight of the law and was crushed. So also will it be for us. Lord have mercy.

  38. dinoship Avatar

    I once came across a fascinating conversation about two person’s experience of a renowned -probably the most renowned- confessor on the Holy Mountain…
    The one person had managed to ‘lure’ a friend of his to confession in Athos. This friend was a taxi driver who, amongst other things, confessed of drug dealing, rape and some quite shocking stuff I won’t mention here. Afterwards, the Confessor’s spiritual child, who had brought the taxi driver over says to the Confessor: “Father, that’s quite extreme isn’t it?”
    Completely unfazed, the confessor replied smiling: “that stuff is nothing at all!, the main thing is that you do not judge…”

  39. dinoship Avatar

    I mention that example above, as it shows a combination of leniency and severity as is appropriate

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    dinoship, the combination is the key. Modernity wants us to think in dicotomies, either/or. Fr. Stepehn’s One Storey Universe belies that notion as does God, it seems.

    Justice is not just without mercy. Mercy cannot really be mercy unless it has a seed of justice in it. Otherwise mercy becomes acquiesence and devolves itself into a passion.

    Lossky in his work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, introduced me to the concept of antinomy (two seeming opposites that make a whole truth). So it is, I think with mercy and justice; the Old and New Testament (when they seem at odds with each other).

  41. Karen Avatar

    “A good Father charms you and obliges you with his loving kindness and you then notice his noble regality, a bad one bullies you with his regal severity and then lectures you on how it was done in a spirit of love…”

    Dinoship, this sounds like a good rule of thumb for discernment for those of us predisposed by earlier false teaching to doubt God’s goodness (of whom I am one).

    John, the knee-jerk predisposition of much of modern Christianity to judge (as in condemn) others in order to affirm God’s “righteousness” is very troubling. Keep reading at Fr. Stephen’s blog, and I think you will find a lot to salve that wound. I have come through many similar experiences as you describe in my own Christian journey, and was on the verge of going off the deep end when I discovered an essay by an Orthodox patristic scholar, entitled “The River of Fire” (linked in a page at this site), which helped to steer me to my true spiritual home in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is a lie and a snare to believe that in order to prove our own Christian commitment and conviction, we have to loudly call out others’ sins. Your own experience and struggle demonstrates its danger to the soul and to a true witness to the love of God in Christ.

  42. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Hi Michael – Thanks. “There are two types of Christian theology” -ology being the study of something. In many ways, I think the very idea of theology can be nothing but perverse if there is such a thing as a personal god. If I were to set about studying my wife, it would diminish the whole relationship. As she says, “I was meant to be loved, not understood.” Thankfully! She is unfathomable. As I said, if a god shows up, fine. Until then, I am content to just try to be a decent human being (for a change).

    “if I am ‘right’ and you disagree with me, you are ‘wrong’ and condemned.” – Well stated. We see this among the disciples of Rush and Maher as much as people who claim to be the disciples of Christ. It’s simply normal human behavior. Not judging or condemning is not so normal (perhaps it’s a sign of mental illness? :o)

  43. Karen Avatar

    John, there is “study of” of something in the academic sense, which presupposes a attempted lack of subjectivity and empirical observation from the outside, and then there is “study of” something in the contemplative sense. I think western Christians tend to use it in the former sense, while the Orthodox tend to use it in the latter, more patristic, sense. Thus a fourth century Orthodox monk, Evagrius of Pontus is often quoted: “One who prays (truly) is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays (truly).” One can certainly contemplate one’s beloved in this sense. If you think about it, it is really a bit nonsensical to believe the creature can observe and study its Creator in the former academic sense.

  44. Karen Avatar

    Sorry it wasn’t clear in my last comment–by “it” I meant to refer to John’s reference to the term “theology.”

  45. dinoship Avatar

    Father Alexander Scmemann said something along these lines I remember:
    “it is the Joy in the Lord that saves. Guilt or moralism does not liberate you. Joy is the foundation of freedom. How on earth has this Christianity become so distorted? … People continually come and ask for advice… And some weakness or false shame keeps me from telling each of them, ‘I don’t have any advice to give you. I have only unremitting joy. Do you want it?” No, they do not. They want to talk about ‘problems’ and chat about ‘solutions.’ No, there was no greater victory of the devil in the world than this ‘psychologized’ religion.

  46. PJ Avatar


    I suspected as much. Protestants take Scripture as their primary axiom. Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Christians take the Church and its tradition, of which Scripture is but a part, albeit an important part.

    There is a reason why these ancient churches do not read the Old Testament at the liturgy on a regular basis: it is a shadow of the image, and thus easily misunderstood. The same goes for Revelation, which is rarely — if ever — read during the liturgy. Since Vatican II, Catholics have incorporated regular OT readings, but the reason was not to put all Scripture on equal footing, but rather to study the types and prophecies contained in the Hebrew oracles.

    Some fathers valued the literal reading of the OT more than others, but all agreed that it must be understood in light of the work of Christ, the Incarnate Word. And the Word revealed clearly that God is Love, Love-in-Communion. Those parts of the OT which (apparently) contradict this revelation must be carefully studied and not taken at face value.

    A superficial or sloppy approach to this hermeneutic can lead to Marcionism. We do not deny the unity of all Scripture. We simply find its unity in Christ, who preached humility, love, and self-sacrifice.

    I wonder, what exactly disturbs you about St. Paul’s writings?

  47. PJ Avatar

    “In addition to this, I have found that morality outside of a religious context is actually fairly common. Indeed, I could make the argument that by and large atheists/agnostics are more moral than many (if not most) religious people with the added bonus of not being hypocritical. ”


    I would argue that much of what passes for “common morality” these days is actually Christian in origin. The values that are today so esteemed — fairness, equality, humility, forgiveness, selfless love — are part and parcel of the Christian gospel. The ancient pagans perceived these attributes as signs of weakness. Even the wisest pagans, such as Aristotle, had no place for humility. The closest they came was prudence.

    One of the difficulties evangelists encountered in Africa was a strong resistance to forgiveness. In Asia, the notion that all are one in Christ offended the sense of hierarchy and propriety that is so paramount in that land. The German barbarians, who praised bravery and courage, were disgusted by the meekness and mildness of Christians. And so on. . . .

    This is not to say that these virtues haven’t undergone an evolution (or, in some cases, a perversion) apart from our outside of Christianity. But their roots are essentially Christian. The great importance we put on love is unimaginable without the New Testament, with its relentless exhortation to charity, whether for friend or foe.

    Our society is running on the fumes of Christianity.

  48. Andrew Avatar

    In Matthew 5:18 Christ affirms the sanctity of divine law but not as a yardstick by which mankind is measured, on the high and low watermark of the passions as it were, but rather as the means which God reveals himself to all creation. “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth (i.e. the universe) pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled” (KJV) speaks precisely of the law’s fulfillment which is likened to the passing of the former things that are revealed anew in him. This is Pascha, which the scriptures and icons with their words and colours, point to.

  49. […] blogged Friday on Fr. Stephen Freeman’s excellent piece on God’s justice. I closed with an allusion to the commonplace that every serious monotheist is, in a sense, an […]

  50. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    PJ: “I wonder, what exactly disturbs you about St. Paul’s writings?” – A lot, actually, but most notably Romans 7 which aptly summarizes the kind of neurosis that accompanies trying to reconcile Christian ideas and basic humanity. I relate to it so well because for 15 years as a Christian I would, nightly, form a gun with my hand, put it to my head and whisper “boom” – every single night before going to sleep. It is no wonder that Paul felt that he was a wretched man, considering that he did not begin from a humanist viewpoint (I don’t blame him because I don’t think that anyone of his day would have thought to consider such a concept as humanism.)

    I disagree with what you say about morality for two reasons. First, morality existed long before Christianity and in all places where Christianity had no root. Secondly, because morality is found in all primates, as well as other animals. The concepts of fairness, empathy, etc are by no means restricted to humans or even to primates. Here is a fascinating example of what I mean:


    Why should a dog have a sense of fairness or be capable of experiencing shame? And if dogs do, why don’t cats or mice? It is an area of study that I find fascinating, not least because so much of what had formerly been attributed to humans alone are being discovered in unexpected places.

    Accepting that we are one of the four sets or great apes is a good starting point when discussing issues like morality. But that is a whole other thread and diverges from the purpose of this post, I think.

  51. Brian Avatar

    ‘If I were to set about studying my wife, it would diminish the whole relationship. As she says, “I was meant to be loved, not understood.”’

    Amen, John. Amen! You set forth the truth with greater depth and clarity than most of us. As Christ once said to one who answered Him well, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

  52. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Greetings, all – You folks keep me up too late 🙂 First, Father Stephen keeps writing these deeply moving and thought-provoking pieces. Then, there are all of these incredible comments… by the time I read them it is past my bedtime. If I wait until the next day to comment, there are even more things to read! Bless you all.

    I am not part of the Orthodox church but I find myself quite at home here. John – I don’t have anything nearly as intelligent to say as all of these others, but I thank you for sharing. Have you read C.S. Lewis? Also a marvelous book that contains some of his letters is “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon VanAuken. (A good book, with the title perhaps being the best part.) Lewis was not always a believer…

    ‘If I were to set about studying my wife, it would diminish the whole relationship. As she says, “I was meant to be loved, not understood.”’ You said this so well – because, being a Christian (if one is to ever be one) must be about relationship. If Father Stephen doesn’t mind, I will include a link to a post of a couple of years ago on my blog that might be relevant. (My blog is psychological and spiritual reflections that evolved to be more – not suggesting you need a psychologist – that is just my own line of work.): http://tinyurl.com/9hlrtsm

  53. Diakrisis Avatar

    Evlogeite! Thank you Pater for all of your work. I appreciate this posting. It seems we still “return God the favour” by projecting our human passions onto the idol we create of Him. The “idea” that the Essence of God can be “moved” by His rational creatures is not Orthodox. … Also thought I would share this link: The Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac the Syrian (http://www.westsrbdio.org/pdf/Archm.Justin_on_Saint_Issak.pdf)

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A personal quibble: I really don’t like the word relationship when it comes to God or my wife. To me the word relationship implies paralell but not necessarily intersecting paths and (reflecting the time in which I grew up) not really all that important.

    I prefer the word inter-relationship. God became man after all and interpentrates us in a manner that is often described as conjugal in nature as in Romans 7. Therefore we are more than just human.

    In fact, I study my marriage and my wife all the time and I am constantly amazed at all the places in my soul she touches and how even mundane things are changed and come alive by her presence. New stuff all the time and a deeper appreciation of the ongoing stuff. I study her and our marriage because it is such a wonderful blessing and I want to enjoy each nuance. IMO, if we don’t study what we love, we soon loose what it means and start taking it for granted. So the study of God, not to control or limit but to realize the majesty.

    There are two ways to ‘just be’ or ‘just love’: 1. in ignorance and lack of awe, and the other is, by study, get to the point (by the grace of God) that you are aware of the connections and interchanges with other humans and other creatures. Prayer is study. That is the basis of the Orthodox definition of a theologian–one who truly prays.

    To be what we are created and called to be is a struggle often full of pain, but that does not mean the pain is not worth it. To settle for being merely human, while it can be comfortable, is to deny a part of ourselves that is crucial.

    I think, John, part of the stuggle you’ve experienced is a result of living in what Fr. Stehpen calls a two storey universe. One in which God and man are functionally separate. One in which it is possible to separate the divine and the human.

    The law was given to us when we were separate. Once God incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ that separation and the death it allows, was no more.

    God is everywhere present and fills all things, that is why it is possible to rejoice always. In fact, the times I have experienced the greatest joy have been closely linked to my greatest pain, as the Pascha about a month after the repose of my first wife. I’ve never sung the Paschal hymn so fully: “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!”

    The pain will be with me always, but so too the knowledge of His victory.

    John, I think too that you are being too linear. Your comment on morality is an example. Of course morality preceded Chrisitanity. Morality is ontological in nature. However, only since Jesus’ incarnation can we begin to more fully understand and articulate the nature of morality.

    It is not possible to be a humanist without Christianity.

  55. PJ Avatar


    I’m sorry you felt that way, but you have terribly misunderstood the meaning of Paul’s writings. It literally breaks my heart to learn that you were taught such an incredibly abusive and demented form of Christianity. Paul is very easy to misread.

    The Apostle was not a morbid and self-loathing man, but joyful and exuberant. Romans 7 is simply a recognition of man’s weakness: we do what we do not want to do, while what we want to do, we do not. This contradiction is a profound element of the human experience.

    However, all is not lost! Indeed, with Christ, love, holiness, and life triumph over hatred, sin, and death! St. Paul’s message was one of great happiness and boundless cheer. For he knew that through conversion, it was no longer sin and death, but rather Christ and the love of God, that dwelt within him.

    As for morality, of course it existed (and still exists) outside Christianity. One of the earliest Christian theologians, St. Justin Martyr, recognized that seeds of truth, words of the Word, are planted everywhere. Indeed, St. John says that the Word enlightens every man and woman. However, not all morality is created equal, so to speak.

    Christianity nurtures and cultivates the natural law which God placed in the heart of all people, as St. Paul tells us in Romans. You can rest assured that Christianity is the greatest advocate of forgiveness, selfless love, humility, and equality that the world has ever known.

    I agree with Michael: there is no humanism apart from Christianity, as history amply demonstrates. That is because the very idea of the human, of the person, is largely the result of Christian meditation on the Christ.

    Similarly, there is a reason the scientific revolution occurred in Europe: Christianity posits that the universe is the product of the Logos, and thus is “logical” in its own right. Even the likes of E.O. Wilson admit as much. Discussing why even the likes of China could not produce a “Newton or Descartes,” he writes:

    “Of probably even greater importance, Chinese scholars abandoned the idea of a supreme being with personal and creative properties. No rational Author of Nature existed in their universe; consequently the objects they meticulously described did not follow universal principles … In the absence of a compelling need for the notion of general laws – thoughts in the mind of God, so to speak — little or no search was made for them.”

    Concerning the animals, I think you’re making a big leap. Humans are animals, so naturally we share much behavior in common with our fellow creatures. However, just because the behavior is similar does not mean that the meaning, intent, and understanding are similar. My dog appears content and well-pleased when I scratch her belly, but is she “happy”? When she bears her teeth before a stranger, is she motivated by love or crude and base instinct?

    More importantly, animals are at best capable of perceptual abstraction, but there is not capable of conceptual abstraction. For instance, no animal could comprehend, let alone explain, the difference between certainty and necessity, nor elementary laws of logic like the principle of non-contradiction, nor basic mathematical rules like a*b = b*a. This is because, while possessing souls, they do not possess a spiritual soul like our own, an intellect capable of partaking of the Mind of God. As St. Irenaeus wrote: “Man is rational and therefore like God” and “God is all mind, all spirit, all intelligence, all reason.”

    Of course, I think that it is unnecessary to draw to sharp a distinction between man and lesser beasts. We were all drawn from the earth. More importantly, we are all finite, mortal, and riddled with weakness. However, as St. Gregory Nazianzus wrote, “man is an animal called to become a god.” Why? This is a great mystery. St. James gives tells us, “He willed to give us birth by the Word of Truth, that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

    Note that we are “firstfruits” only after this “birth by the Word of Truth.” Our distance from the lesser animals increases as we become less beast-like and more Word-like. Humans, in a real way, incorporate the whole material and spiritual world, for we are bodies with spirits. A Christian is one who offers himself up as the “firstfruits” of creation — creation giving itself back to the Creator in love and gratitude. In doing so, we are turned evermore from sons of man to sons of God — in the Son, through the Spirit.

    This is the gospel, this is the faith. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable [Logos-like] service.”

    I beg you to recognize that you were dreadfully misinformed about the faith. You were deceived by no fault of your own: through the maliciousness of man and the machinations of the wicked intelligences, heresy has spread across the earth. I still struggle to escape the mire. It is a constant struggle of love against hatred, humility against pride, meekness against autonomy, and holiness against sin. In short, it is the struggle of real life, which is freedom in the Spirit, against the bondage of death, which is servitude to the neurotic ego and the caprice of Satan himself.

    Check your presuppositions. Consider your axioms. Think carefully. And pray! Even if your prayer is, “Lord I do not believe — help my unbelief!” God bless you.

  56. dinoship Avatar

    I think that “Accepting that we are one of the four sets or great apes” might seem a step forward from certain older models, but it is way backwards when compared to, say St. Maximus’ orthodox paradigm that we are brought into being from non-being (we are, in a sense, nought), yet we are called to become partakers of God’s life, gods… It sheds a different line on Romans 7…
    A linear perception of Scripture caused a lot less problems in the past than it does today. This is, I think, due to the massive overdevelopment of rationalism in our perception of the world in the western world, a “religionization” of science and a “scientification” of religion (in the west).
    Linearity obviously cannot ever comprehend “the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1, 8)
    The eternal is not linear, and although there is a linear/historical aspect to our human point of view of the things of God (the “human point of view” is distinctly western), God’s point of view is timeless and God’s point of view is the preferred point of view in Orthodoxy – even for us humans, destined to become gods…

  57. dinoship Avatar

    Sorry, I meant to say above “It sheds a different LIGHT on Romans 7…”

    Also, concerning the ‘beyond logical’ non-linearity of “the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come”, the original Greek intentionally uses ‘wrong’ words! “ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος” the word “ὁ ἦν” does not exist in Greek, yet it is used to signify Him Who continually and always was/is…

  58. Zachary Avatar

    Thank you, Father! I enjoyed this very much. I have also appreciated the conversation between you all. The only way to live life well is to appreciate its mystery. Here is one of my favorite parts of the story, “The Little Prince” by Antoine Exupery that I thought of while reading this thread: “‘The desert is beautiful,’ the Little Prince said.
    It was true. I’ve always loved the desert. You sit down on a sand dune. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet something shines, something sings in the silence….
    ‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ the Little Prince continued, ‘is that it hides a well somewhere….’
    I was surprised by suddenly understanding that radiance of the sands. When I was a little boy I lived in an old house and there was a legend that a treasure was buried in it somewhere. Of course, no one was ever able to find the treasure, perhaps no one ever searched. But it cast a spell over that whole house. My house hid a secret in the depths of its heart….
    ‘Yes,’ I said to the Little Prince, ‘whether it’s a house or the stars or the desert, what makes them beautiful is invisible.’”

  59. dinoship Avatar

    ‘If I were to set about studying my wife, it would diminish the whole relationship.” Indeed. The study of Christianity instead of the living of it is the plague of western “theology”.
    The authentic Christian experience by its nature is less describable and more perceivable -directly or indirectly-, something more hidden, only just suspected during the initial stages of the journey of the progression of the soul.
    The Christian experience is also only ever authentic, when one loves the Cross over comfort, the race much more than winning, when one lives God’s kingdom as more real than the events of history; When one’s faith is stronger than their words, when one discerns the truth more in mystery than in those things we comprehend; When in difficulties we one is praying more and thinking rationally less; when one finds that grace is more effective than their exertion; when one’s neighbour is closer than oneself; When one craves death more than life, when one desires God’s point of view more than one’s own point of view, when one desires God more than God’s gifts.

  60. dinoship Avatar

    In contrast to the above description of authentic experience, adulterated experience makes Christians who instead of being saved in the Church, feel that we are the ones who need to save the truth.
    I am certainly guilty of all this and it plagues all of us due to the simple fact that we are children of the same world.
    Thus, instead of discerning in the faces of our brothers, brothers of Christ, we see opponents to be overwhelmed, who must support our views. Instead of feeding our faith with humility of heart, we supply it with the responses of knowledge, rational arguments and logic. We are full of useless and inopportune theological knowledge, but very poor in precious spiritual experience.

  61. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you, Zachary, for the quote from “The Little Prince”. There is so much wisdom in that book. I read it often. I think it prepared my heart for orthodoxy and it always reorients me when I get a little lost.

  62. PJ Avatar

    I don’t understand how people envision St. Paul as a morose and masochistic man full of self-hatred, but I do realize that this picture is not uncommon. I, for one, have never encountered a man who seemed happier, nor have I ever read words so full of vitality and love. Yes, St. Paul had a very realistic sense of man’s limitations and weaknesses, especially his inner turmoil (see Romans 7), but he recognized that these were overcome by communion with the God who is Love, through Christ in the Spirit.

  63. fatherstephen Avatar

    If you “cherry pick” Paul’s writings, he says things some take to be anti-woman, anti-gay, condemning, judgmental, etc. In his own context he would more likely have been charged with being a libertine. His vision of grace and freedom are foundational. He’s been caricatured too easily.

  64. fatherstephen Avatar

    All comments have been turned back on. Found the problem.

  65. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    I didn’t mean this to devolve into a discussion on Paul. To my mind, Paul has had far too much importance in Western Christianity. Indeed, I have known far more disciples of Paul than of Christ.

    Words are difficult and writing is perhaps the worst form of communication between people. It leaves too much to a person’s own mood, character and worldview. It seems to me that the more words that are required, the further we journey from truth, for words obscure.

    I have heard it time and again that the OT and just about everything else has to be viewed through the lens of Christ. I am too stupid for this. All I ever wanted was Christ himself. All I received was silence except from preachers and “prophets” who wanted to tell me what they thought. As I said, if god wants to find me, so be it. I am not interested in lenses or interpretations. I’m not even interested in a personal revelation. I am only interested in a person, if there is one.

  66. fatherstephen Avatar

    John, may God grant it.

  67. PJ Avatar

    Do not underestimate yourself, John. And do not close yourself off, even when all seems lost. For what it’s worth, Mother Theresa, after her brilliant and vivid encounter with Christ, lived in spiritual darkness for some forty years. Perhaps God has a special cross for you, which you cannot even see. If this is the case, may He give you strength to bear it with love and humility. I have and will continue to pray for you. God bless.

  68. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Thank you all. I look forward to future posts on this site.

  69. Fr. James Guirguis Avatar

    Thank you Father. This reminds me of Matthew 9:13, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

  70. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    Great piece! Love the new site btw, too.

    If I may, I wonder whether “infinite” is only one of the problems with Anselm’s argument as we have it. The other is “owed”. His construct is the classical medieval notion of fealty – itself an outgrowth of the Roman relation between slave and master – but stripped of the intense personal nature of this relationship (symbolized by placing one’s hands within the hands of one’s Lord in investiture) it seems without emotion… and even humanity. If – and I say if in more than a purely rhettorical sense – if God wants people who choose, not people who “owe” or are “slaves by birth”… I think these are slaves who by baptism into a similarly intensely personal love, real, complete, giving and pure self-sacrificing love, then perhaps we simply miss this understanding as assumed and implicit (but silent) in the writings of Anselm. I think I have myself for many years done this… and been falsely encouraged in doing so perhaps as well. So I wonder in what sense we Orthodox unfairly pillory Anselm for our modern analysis of what he has written and his leaving out a sense for love that might have been more commonly assumed in his day – but in our “lay it all out there” contemporary sensibility is simply missing? Haven’t been back over Anselm’s text in decades… really. So I defer to others more familiar there, but there seems enough in other medieval literature to suggest that the notion of ideal love and/or fealty was neither an Eastern nor modern invention. Can he not be rescued here? Just curious.

  71. Greg Avatar

    DB Hart provides an Orthodox reading of Anselm in Beauty of the Infinite. In re-reading it some time ago I have to say I do not find his reading particularly persuasive.

  72. dinoship Avatar

    John Shores,
    concerning Romans 7, this is, to me, the spontaneous understanding of it:
    The Mosaic law with the mandate; not to covet, revealed the inner existential confrontation of Man. The problem therefore of the liberation of man from slavery was indeed first and foremost, a self-awareness problem with the first objective being to understand the challenge of the inability to enjoy freedom from an enslaving desire.
    The necessary enlightening process in the field of self-consciousness is this command “not to covet,” it is what reveals the need for liberation. The perceived incompetence and inability to apply freedom and sovereignty, for oneself, denying their personal desires, is felt as an internal split.
    So while the command opened a door towards freedom, it is a sobering challenge, as that same command shows the actual limits of Man’s freedom, ie: of un-freedom.
    This experiential-existential contradiction showed the same command to be a validation of the death –as a hitherto unconscious consequence- of sin.

    I once lived without law, but when the order came, sin “lived” again (since I can not apply the command and thus discovered the enslavement of my sinful apostasy) and then I died as a consequence of sin and not of the law.

    This was a good result of the operation of the law; it opened my eyes and showed me that I can have desires and choices, but also showed me that I cannot operate freely…

    But such self-consciousness, reveals the contradictory character of Man.
    We should not desire (“covet”), but we can only wish not to (being in bondage to sin)! So what does it mean to get a command and simultaneously an assurance from the same command, that you cannot implement it?

    “O wretched man that I am.” – “Who can redeem me?” This Who, (rather than what or how or when), this total attachment to Him Who redeems is the route to salvation.
    So this whole process is needed to reveal the “double knowledge” that saves Man: The knowledge that I am totally weak beyond description and God is all-powerful beyond description. This is the start and end of true spiritual life…
    This is the constant condition of “keeping one’s mind in Hell but despairing not”.

  73. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    That’s all fine and well but just because I realize that the law forbids me from acting out on a natural impulse does not translate that I am a bad person for having the impulse. Having to restrain myself is a source of frustration, certainly, but a rational view will reveal that the good of the community depends on laws that prohibit behavior that is damaging to the community.

    What Paul is stating, it seems to me, is that he needs someone to alter him on a biological level so that he does not have the impulses that are contrary to the law and if he cannot have that then he needs to have his psyche relieved by someone forgiving him for having said impulses. Either way, it reveals the lie that “if any man be in Christ he is a new creation.” No he isn’t. He’s just a guy who has found a way to forgive himself for having human emotions and thoughts. Being “in Christ” does not stop him from having them.

    Which begs the question, “What’s wrong with being human?” That seems to be the central issue surrounding Christianity. Being human is bad.

    Michael stated, “He allows us to condemn ourselves until we don’t and then He takes our burdens from us as we offer them to Him.” What’s the difference between that and simply accepting that we are human, that we have foibles, and that’s OK? If we can forgive ourselves and strive to avoid those foibles, what more do we need?

    “keeping one’s mind in Hell but despairing not” – Isn’t that rather like centering your life on avoiding prison? That seems like a very unhealthy attitude to me.

  74. drewster2000 Avatar

    John Shores,

    A thought. It is encouraging to me that are here: honest, seeking truth, conversing intelligently, not spewing forth denigrations or other evil. God have given you all these qualities and you are exercising them.

    Is this not something to rejoice about? You have at least some God-given light to steer by or wouldn’t have made it this far. I don’t know your past or your path, but I know He hasn’t given up on you – nor you on Him. This is very good.

  75. PJ Avatar

    “What Paul is stating, it seems to me, is that he needs someone to alter him on a biological level so that he does not have the impulses that are contrary to the law and if he cannot have that then he needs to have his psyche relieved by someone forgiving him for having said impulses. Either way, it reveals the lie that “if any man be in Christ he is a new creation.” No he isn’t. He’s just a guy who has found a way to forgive himself for having human emotions and thoughts. Being “in Christ” does not stop him from having them.”

    John, you badly misunderstand the passage in question. St. Paul is speaking rhetorically, from the vantage point of one who *IS NOT* a new creation in Christ.

    If you go onto Romans 8 you read:

    “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

    Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.”

    The last line is especially important. The natural man is tossed about by the passions. He is troubled by his inability to do as he wishes. He wishes, for instance, to be faithful to his wife, yet he finds himself continually succumbing to lust. The spiritual man, however, possess the mind of Christ. He lives in the Spirit and so is “set on what the Spirit desires.” Thus he experiences “life and peace.”

    You have been led astray by faulty exegesis, I’m afraid.

    This is not to say that those who are “in Christ” don’t suffer temptation, however. We all have a “thorn in the flesh.” However, these sufferings become opportunities for humility, for “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). By becoming poor we become rich.

    Christianity is not about avoiding suffering, but about joining our sufferings to those of Christ, so that by dying with Him we might live like Him. Christianity is about compassion — “to suffer together.” United with Christ, alive in the Spirit, our sufferings become joyful opportunities for transcendence.

    Thus St. Paul can sing out happily:

    But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

    13Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

    16So we do not lose heart. Though our outer selfc is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:1-18).

    As I said before, superficial readings of St. Paul have disastrous consequences. You seem to have been badly mislead during your years as a Christian. Consider looking deeper! God bless you!

  76. PJ Avatar

    Also, I caution you against thinking too simplistically about terms like “new creation,” “spiritual man” and “body of death.” These refer to incredible mysteries, mysteries what St. Matthew calls the “secret place” where God meets man. You appear to be a very earnest fellow with much good will, and I applaud your courage. But I sense that you have yet to really comprehend the profound dimensions of St. Paul’s words. You are thinking rather literally, and your notions are saturated with modern psychology, which concerns the ego, not the heart. This is a problem, for the ego is superficial, if enigmatic, but “the heart of a man is like deep water” (Proverbs 20:5). God bless.

  77. PJ Avatar

    Er, the second sentence should read: “These refer to incredible mysteries, mysteries of what St. Matthew calls the “secret place,” where God meets man.”

    St. Paul was first and foremost a man of intense and mystical prayer. The only way to access his writings authentically is to pray over them — slowly, meditatively, generously.

  78. dinoship Avatar

    Well said and well quoted PJ.

  79. PJ Avatar

    I don’t mean to impugn your spiritual struggle, John. It’s just that we are all prone to “listening without hearing” when it comes to the Christian gospel, given its omnipresence in our society.

    Consider these wise words:

    “So decrepit and so abused is the language of the Judeo-Christian religions that it takes an effort to salvage them, the very words, from the husks and barnacles of meaning which have encrusted them over the centuries. Or else words can become slick as coins worn thin by usage and so devalued. One of the tasks of the saint is to renew language, to sing a new song. The novelist, no saint, has a humbler task. He must use every ounce of skill, cunning, humor, even irony, to deliver religion from the merely edifying.”

    –Walker Percy, “Why Are You a Catholic?”

  80. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    John, the difference between simply forgiving one’s self and the sacrament of confession is profound. Forgiving one’s self is an act of personal will which we really don’t have the authority to do.

    The sacrament of confession is an act of giving up one’s will for the will and mercy of Jesus Christ Incarnate–submitting ourselves willingly to Christ’s love. It is an act of communion with one who is wholly other, yet wholly us at the same time. Remember how the Orthodox sacrament begins: “Know that you confess not to me, a sinner, but to Christ Himself…”

    Confession is also an act of genuine self-knowing that is often beyond any articulation–a transcendent and deeply intimate realization of God’s love for me personally. I give up my sins and God returns to me a portion of my true self.

    If I really make the offering and let go, the sin is gone even when there are consequences that must be endured in this earth. I am ontologically changed, not just psychologically comforted.

    Of course, that’s the rub, we humans tend to rather like our favorite sins and identify who we are with them rather than as God created us to be. So, it is a work which goes on for a lifetime. It is never fully complete in this life.

    However, each step that is made can never be fully undone either as our will is never sufficient to overturn the grace of God we have accepted.

    The priest is there to by our witness, our guide, and our guardian against the world. Ultimately he pronounces the mercy of God by the grace he has been given through laying on of hands. The priest’s touch is as much a part of the sacrament as the prayers.

  81. PJ Avatar

    I think that John is also struggling with the modern confusion of the psychological and the spiritual. “Human emotions and thoughts” are the realm of the psychology, whereas our life in Christ is spiritual. St. Augustine wrestled mightily to distinguish these too “modes” in the Confessions. He speaks often of a luminous reality, a light, that glows deep in the intellect, somehow above and beyond the prying fingers of discursive reason: this is the mysterious ken of the spirit. To be born anew in Christ is to be thrust into an entirely new dimension of existence, an existence characterized by an openness and receptiveness to the gracious presence of the One called I AM WHO AM. The fathers do not call the human heart a universe unto its own without reason. Christ lays such stress on quiet, private prayer because God is “subtle” (Solomon) and “hidden” (Isaiah). This is not a reflection of His smallness, but rather our callousness. The eyes of our intellect are covered with the cataracts of sin. Only prayer and askesis, only love and humility, can reveal Him. Honestly, we would be lost if not for the Spirit who intercedes for us even in our ignorance.

  82. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    drewster2000 – Thanks for your post. You may attribute my character traits to god. Perhaps if god ever shows up, one day I will as well. At present, though, it is not a mystery to me in the same sense that god is a mystery. It is simple biology.

    PJ – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” which is to say that there IS condemnation for everyone else. To me, this is incongruent with a concept of a loving personality.

    “You have been led astray by faulty exegesis, I’m afraid.” – Ah, how oft and how loudly I have heard this said by preachers of every denomination. But you are wrong. To me, the premise is very simple. If there is a personal deity and it is, at its essence, love, then some things naturally follow.

    1. The only reference points I have for such a concept are found in inter-human relationships.

    2. Using these are reference points, it is plain that forgiveness, mercy and so on neither demand sacrifice nor require a payment or atonement of any type. Either you forgive someone or you don’t. (When was the last time you told your child, “I’ll forgive you if you kill your cat fluffy”? Or worse, “I have killed your older brother so as to restore a right relationship between us”?)

    “I caution you against thinking too simplistically…” – But I have to. If the truth is not simple, how can it be truth?

    “we are all prone to ‘listening without hearing’ when it comes to the Christian gospel…” – Well, if it will give you any insight, I will say that I was indoctrinated in Christianity practically since birth. I do not doubt that my father would have started on me prenatally if it were possible. Having come to understand my father’s upbringing, I completely understand why he did these things. There is not an ounce of anger or negativity that I feel toward my dad, so please don’t read any malice or negativity in what I say.

    By age 6, my father would wake me every morning at 6am to teach me Greek and read through the Proverbs with me. His desire was that I would become a theologian and so I was inundated from that time forward.

    Indeed, there was almost no secular influence in our home. I could not listen to secular music, watch anything more dangerous than Little House on the Prairie, or associate with people who were not of the faith. Even as a teen, my life was regulated and I was told explicitly to avoid certain people in the church who would assuredly lead me to trouble.

    Any measure of sanity that I retained (and it was precious little) was founded on two very simple ideas:

    1. Jesus hung out with the sinners and not the theologians.

    2. The beatitudes contained everything necessary for godly living.

    Later on, I realized three powerful things with regards to stories in the gospels:

    1. The woman caught in adultery wasn’t forgiven. She wasn’t accused at all!

    2. The paralytic never asked forgiveness but he got it anyways along with the powers of ambulation.

    3. The people who were in the middle of murdering Jesus were forgiven without a call to repentance.

    There are examples of people being required to do this or that and lots of shouting from John the Baptizer about repenting but even he doubted that Jesus was actually the guy he thought he was.

    To my mind, any answer to a question that requires many pages and several books to explain cannot be the right answer. The more complicated the answer, the more it obscures the truth.

    But, again, all this is speculative. I can no more measure the truth about god than I can measure the truth about Gandalf (who, in the movie, totally sucked as did anyone else who was virtuous in the book).

  83. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Yes, and the more deeply we allow the Holy Spirit to take us into our heart, the less we disagree with one another, or so it seems.

    It is the outward things of material and reason about which we fight even those seem more substantial and ‘real’.

  84. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    I posted a long and thorough reply but it got lost. So, the simple response is this. I am far too simple to accept that the truth is complex. For every hundred words attributed to Christ in the gospels, I have heard tens of thousands of words by people trying to explain them. This, to me, is silly and obscures the truth.

    Being simple, there are two things about Jesus that I am willing to accept:

    1. He hung out with sinners and not with theologians.

    2. No one fully understands why Jesus did and said the things that he did and said.

    For myself, the heart of the gospels is found principally in three accounts:

    1. The woman caught in adultery was NOT forgiven. She was caught in the very act. There was no doubt about her guilt. And yet she wasn’t even accused.

    2. The paralytic was forgiven not as an object lesson to the theologians but because it was what he needed. He never asked for it nor was he required to make a sacrifice or adhere to any Christian dogma in order to retain it.

    3. The people who were in the middle of murdering Jesus were forgiven flat out. (These were Jews and Gentiles and they were as bad as the Manson family or Idi Amin or Hitler or the United States citizens whose tax dollars funded the extermination of Native Americans.)

    To my mind, forgiveness is a simple matter. So is reconciliation. All the folderol surrounding religious formulas and doctrines and ceremonies are simply that, folderol. It can do nothing but endarken the truth.

    If there is a god and it is a personal god, there is no need for all this complexity. Personalities interact with one another and meaning is derived from those interactions. Anything outside of those interactions is mere speculation.

    I’m a huge fan of fiction, but I never mistake it for reality, regardless of what kernels of truth the work may contain. I could write a dissertation on the personality of Andrew Wiggins (Ender’s Game series) and it would be fascinating. But he isn’t an actual person. This is how I see god. (If god (or Andrew Wiggins) shows up, I’ll eat these words.)

  85. PJ Avatar

    “I am far too simple to accept that the truth is complex.”

    Every discipline, from genetics to mathematics to economics, contains truths which are complex. So the notion that truth and complexity are mutually exclusive is false.

    I might add that God is not a “person” in the same way that you and I are persons. It is much more … complex … than that. 😉

    Finally, I think you’re confusing that which is complex with that which is foreign. You do not recognize what we are talking about, so you see it as “complex” or “complicated.” Yet to us — at least to me — it is very simple. My relationship with God is perhaps the simplest thing in my life, though the “science of God” (a hideous term) can indeed be expounded on at length.

    Anyway, it seems your mind is made up. All you can do now is love your neighbor. You seem capable of that, at least. God bless.

  86. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Hi PJ – If you understood the indoctrination under which I was raised, I doubt that you would would say that I “do not recognize what (you) are talking about”. At the age of 6, my father started me on a program of learning Greek and training me to become a theologian but my training in Christianity began at age 4 (which I remember vividly as it was rather traumatic to my innocent little heart). I was not allowed to listen to secular music, watch anything more dangerous than Little House and was in the church whenever the doors were open. I was even warned away from certain types of people who came to church and my father deems a threat to my spiritual welfare.

    Our whole lives revolved around the Christian god. I have read everything from Luther to Calvin to Cyprian to Clement. I’m not some outsider looking in. I was an insider who underwent the torment of getting outside and found the weather outside to be preferable to that inside the terrarium.

    “it seems your mind is made up” – Of course it isn’t! Even Dawkins leaves room for the possibility of god. I do too. But I will not settle for something that is not real. If there is a god, he knows how to reach me in ways that I can comprehend. I am not going to look at the Aurora Borealis and make up stories about a Firefox, nor and I going to interpret the words or kindness of people around me as something other than words or kindness. If god shows up, he will show up and make himself known to me. Like I said, it’s really quite simple. It ought to be exceedingly simple for an omnipotent being.

  87. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    John, what is complex is sin. Truth is not complex but it is many layered. The whole Gospel was given to us not just three stories so that we might see and understand the inter-relationships with God, us, and the rest of the created realm(s).

    To me there is nothing simpler than going to confession. The reasons I don’t are often quite complex.

    Loving is simple, the ways in which that love manifests and how it touches my heart are awesomely varied.

    Forgiveness is already given by our Lord of the Cross, you are quite correct. However, we must enter into that forgiveness in order to experience it here and now. That, again due to sin, can be quite a complex thing to do.

    It is ontological change that I am looking for; deep experential communion, not merely mental acceptance of propositions.

  88. dinoship Avatar

    the soul that sees God will never exchange Him for all of creation, that is a fact that repeats itself in the lives of all the Saints (i.e: of others).There is a certain incontestability to this fact, especially as it is repeated for thousands of years (in others). It can never be explained away psychologically – its intensity does not compare to any other experience of this world. It might not touch ME until I have a personal, experiential taste of it, but it should have me wondering… The purity of heart that enables this view has a great deal to do with my connection to these others.
    It seems, in a sense, that you are possibly far, but also extremely close, closer than you might even think at first…

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “keeping one’s mind in Hell but despairing not” – Isn’t that rather like centering your life on avoiding prison? That seems like a very unhealthy attitude to me.

    John, I fully understand your objections to this saying. Keep in mind that it came from an St. Silouan after great struggle of a depth that few have to face.

    It can be fulfilled, as Fr. Stephen has pointed out by developing an attitude of thankfulness in all things. It is difficult. The idea being that it is love that elevates us to God and links us–the love of Christ who desenced into human from and Hades itself for our salvation.

  90. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    “we must enter into that forgiveness in order to experience it here and now.” – This is an idea with which I do not agree. That was sort of what I was preemptively refuting with those three accounts. Would you say that those in the act of murdering Jesus “entered into forgiveness” of their own free will? I think not. Does that mean they were not forgiven? Again, I think not. If forgiveness was so important, why wasn’t the guilty woman even accused? It is these sorts of logical inconsistencies that troubled me for so long.

    The nature of forgiveness does not require sacrifice. Either you forgive someone or you don’t. If your fiend lies to you or tells lies about you and damages your reputation, do you tell him that you will forgive him if he kills his favorite puppy? Would you say, “Tell ya what Bill, I’ll kill my kid and then you and I can be straight.”? Of course not. If there was a purpose if Jesus’ death, that purpose could not have been either forgiveness or reconciliation UNLESS god is, in fact, not good or love.

    The whole idea of the cross and sacrifice is predicated on the “Fall of Man” which is not either literally or figuratively true in any way. Mankind was never “innocent” in any moral context. Such a proposition is a biological impossibility just as a literal seven day creation is a physical impossibility. Without the “first Adam” the story of a second one is meaningless.

    There is a certain perspective from which Christianity makes sense. But there is also a perspective from which this also makes sense:


    I just don’t happen to share either perspective.

  91. dinoship Avatar

    I would describe you, and I beg that you pardon my taking this liberty, from your words as a true believer who somehow thinks and experiences quite profoundly that he does not believe. That God you do not believe in, is not the true God anyway… You sound like you know -or at least suspect- that the true God is watching you lovingly.
    He might be slowly and patiently bringing you (just like He probably does with most of us) to the assuredness of a humility that opens our eyes to behold Him incontrovertibly.
    I repeat that I cannot see you not enjoying St. Silouan the Athonite hugely!
    May God be with you, His mercy secretly pursues us all of our lives.

  92. dinoship Avatar

    Sorry! The above comment was obviously towards John, (even though it might apply to others..)

  93. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Thanks Dinoship. You may freely describe me as “a true believer.” I refuse to believe that which is not true.

    I’m not interested in being watched (that’s a little creepy anyways!). If there’s no interaction between us, there is no relationship and all else is pointless speculation. If you interact with god, good on ya! I am not jealous but I am happy that this is so. As I stated earlier on, I am always pleased to know good people and you seem to be one. I am pleased that you find joy there.

  94. dinoship Avatar

    we make a great deal in orthodoxy of how the best way to see God, and certainly the best way to start seeing Him, is by putting oneself under His loving gaze. That idea is often found in the Psalms…
    Part of this -only a part though- is for the safety of the humble frame of mind it provides. And His grace is granted to the humble.

    I know God is omnipresent. What if I saw Him? I want Him to see me and me to remain under His gaze…
    Yes, seeing Him might change my life most profoundly forever; imagine if it didn’t though! My egotism is THAT ridiculous. I trust that He knows what (and when) He is doing. The first step is always such a faith, and the enemy will fight it until the very last steps of the souls progression towards God.
    Putting oneself under His constant gaze has a power to heal absolutely everything, it can lead to an unbroken eucharistic mode of Life.

  95. PJ Avatar


    You’re right to say that you were “indoctrinated,” but into what I am not sure. Certainly not the ancient faith of the apostles. If you were not taught first and foremost about humility and love, joy and hope, then you were not taught Christianity. I remain unconvinced that you truly understand what the faith is about.

    You are living proof that schism and heresy are really very dangerous to people’s souls. What you endured sounds terrible, and you were clearly right to sense that it your father’s neurotic, controlling, and paranoid vision had little to do with Jesus Christ, eternal Wisdom made flesh, nor with the Holy Spirit, that ever-present and all-consuming Fire of Love. You have been deeply wounded, that much is clear, and I will pray for your healing.

    At this point, however, I’m not sure what else there is to be said. What exactly do you want to accomplish? You have examined Christianity (as you know it) inside and out and found it lacking. You are not interested in testimonies or theological writings. You will only bow before the Lord if He reveals Himself to you in vivid, spectacular fashion.

    Why then do we carry on this particular discourse? Surely it will only yield friction: heat rather than light. I, for one, will now bid you adieu. I sincerely hope you consider going back to “square one” in your study of the faith. But if not, then I hope you live a life after the model of Jesus the Nazarene, “the son of Joseph the carpenter”: humble, merciful, loving, meek, mild, and peaceful.

    God bless you, and keep on reading this blog!

  96. Norman Coppola Avatar
    Norman Coppola

    Fr. Stephen, I found this article intriguing and discussed it with Protestant friends (I have been Orthodox for 25 years. That discussion leads me to ask now the questions that made the article seem intriguing. Understood that we tend to pervert justice to our own interests, and that our bearing infinite guilt is absurd except in an emotional sense, but why such a narrow view of justice? God requires of us that we be just; our Faith tells us that we have a duty to social justice. Why pass over this without mention? There is an overlap between the inscrutable justice of God and the sense of justice He put in us, so we can not be completely ignorant about His justice.

  97. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good questions. “Why such a narrow view of justice?” I have narrowed the view because of the “insatiable” demands that can accompany it. Our Western culture has tended to place no such limits (either theologically or otherwise) and leaves itself open for passion-driven efforts that yield disastrous results. The Scriptural approach to justice, as noted in the discussion of lex talionis, is to limit the demands of justice. The word that comes to mind is the virtue of “prudence.” A good judge must be prudent. He cannot be carried away by the passion of justice, but must prudently apply the law for the good of all. Judges (like priests) have to make very difficult decisions for the good of human beings and society. Abstract demands (such as justice) ignore the true character of the very particular needs of real human beings. And having done so, must bear the inevitable criticism and calumny that such prudence must endure. Ancient Greece (as well as the OT) had a very high regard for those who had to fulfill such roles. But prudence was by far the more revered virtue.

    Social justice is a far more dangerous topic (it seems to me). Just as justice is insatiable, so the dreams of human beings concerning society are equally unbounded. Utopian visions have probably caused more human suffering than all the narrow-minded tyrants of the ages. I look at the model of Biblical Israel. The primary mechanism of social justice was the Jubilee cycle, in which property was returned to its original owners every 50 years and debts were cancelled, etc. One of the largest problems of the ancient world was the imbalances that occurred with time. The rich always get richer and the poor get poorer. Systems of redistribution are very difficult to establish. Israel’s was perhaps the most radical that I am aware of. Most civilizations achieved redistribution by cycles of civil war and the rewarding of soldiers. Thus theft was the primary engine of justice.

    A wise civilization will acknowledge the inherent inequality of all systems and seek to ameliorate its effects. A foolish civilization will seek to eliminate all inequality. I say “foolish” because such demands are insatiable and seem to always do more harm than good. In the long run, such ideal values become more important than the people they should serve. Thus a civilization needs to be wise and prudent.

    “Social justice” is a slogan of the modern political world and not a particular Biblical injunction. We should draw wise lessons from great prophets such as Amos, but using Amos to create slogans can easily be little more than demagoguery. What we really want is not justice, but mercy. The discipline of the Church is prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The last term, disguised in English, is simply, “Showing mercy.” The mercy of a wise society will not forget the poor and the oppressed, but will intervene for them and do justice with prudence.

    What we lack in our age is a prudent use of language and wise leaders. As to our inherent sense of justice – “which he put in us” – of this I am not so sure. What I have suggested is that what we call “justice” as an inherent sense, is closer to a passion. Our own justice, if it mirrors God’s, will also often be inscrutable – not nearly as obvious as we think. We find it by seeking truly, from the heart, to love our neighbor as ourself and to be merciful and kind, and prudent in all our doings.

    The word “justice” as been so abused (both theologically and in civil usage) that I do not trust it on the lips of our society. I am no longer a young man. The slogans of our culture only make me more cynical. Those who speak of justice and yet fail to give so much as a tithe for alms – ring hollow for me. All virtue is ultimately found in the character of people and not in the laws of their land. For laws cannot be more just than the people who must live by them and enforce them (that was part of Amos’ message). What is the possible meaning of an unjust man’s inherent sense of justice? It is simple hypocrisy. Thus we should all cry for mercy.

  98. Norman Coppola Avatar
    Norman Coppola

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the helpful reply. I understand that every just act must have mercy as its source and guide. Indeed, the idea of justice is dangerous when untethered from mercy. I must ask ask again, however, about the sense of justice God endowed us with. For it is not mere hypocrisy, hypocrites though we are, to defend the defenseless. Compassion not only calls for mercy but hates cruelty and lays down its life so that abuse may be stopped. The issue of abortion is an example. I think that justice, both personal and social, if there is a difference, has to retain a positive and valid meaning as a term, all the more so since it is grievously distorted. So is the word “love”. “Justice” is a problematic word, and you have shown me that well, but we shouldn’t and really can’t abandon it. We lose good allies that way. Can we not make clear that we mean it as a godly ideal, inseparably bound up with mercy? Can’t we demand justice for “justice”?

  99. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. Having added all my caveats, I readily agree that justice (dike in the Greek) is a gift from God, implanted within us. But having said that, it requires some definition. The word has undergone a lot of cultural handling.

    The root (dike) is also the root for righteousness (dikaiosune). And, in a fashion, that gets us closer to its real meaning. Justice is the desire for right, true and proper relationship with God and with others. It is a right desire for the Law of God. Thus a desire to protect the unborn and others who are weak, is a desire given by God. When that desire is lost (as it seems to be many times) it indicates a deep wound and injury in the soul – a disordering of our very humanity. We cannot abandon what God has given us.

    Righteousness is a gift of God – and the healing of our soul’s desire for it is also God’s gift. Without it we would be in serious trouble. However, there can be no righteousness apart from Christ – no right-ordering of our soul without it’s primary status as a creature. Right relationship with our Creator and fellow creatures (all of them) is the fundamental of justice.

    “Thou hast set the world right, and it cannot be shaken.”

    How’s that?

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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