Back to the Future

futureHistory is tyranny.

A seemingly inescapable part of human life is its history (and the baggage it brings with it). So much that shapes our identity: language, culture, economics, health, personality (and the list goes on), are largely products of history. As such, all of these things are outside of our control, not a part of our choosing. I am white, Anglo-American, lower middle class, with high blood pressure and attention deficit disorder. None of these things were chosen by me – and sometimes I would like to have chosen otherwise. But history would seem to be destiny.

However, history as destiny is heresy, or at least a marriage to the devil. History is the stuff of which we are made, but it is not the stuff of God’s making. History is the collection of dead things, events and people who have passed into dust. We remember almost nothing. Of the trillions and trillions of things that take place in any one moment, we generally mark but one as significant. Yet it was itself but a small sample of things that happened in that moment.

We experience history as tyranny. Many of the struggles of nations and peoples are a constant reliving of history’s fortunes: the land for which my fathers died; the land for which my fathers killed your fathers; the land for which you are prepared to kill me; and so the history we have lived becomes the present we are living, and too often the future we shall live.

True Existence Is From the Future

But this is not the Christian faith. The Church is called, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” And although some will describe it as the “historical” Church (for it has existed since the beginning), it is actually nothing of the sort.

St. John Chrysostom offers the correct Christian understanding of human existence:

It was You Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.

The verb tense in this statement is extremely important. Though it was God who brought us into existence, it is we ourselves who fell away from the existence for which we were created. We became, if you will, “historical” creatures. But St. John notes that God “raised us up again” (past tense), and did not cease to do all things (past tense), until He had brought us up to heaven (past tense!), and had endowed us with His kingdom (past tense) which is to come (future).

It is a strange mix of tenses. We have been brought up to heaven! He has endowed us with His kingdom! We have been endowed with something that is to come!

This strange mix makes sense only when we realize that our existence in Christ is not historical, per se. We live in “history.” But we are creatures of the kingdom which is to come. Theologically we say that our existence is eschatological. The life that I am living day by day, is being created from the future.

The Scriptures say the same thing:

 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20 NKJ)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2 NKJ)

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-4 NKJ)

The true self, the man who I am becoming, is the free gift of God. History meets it and history is overcome (for you died). The true self is created and refashioned in the image of Christ (we shall be like Him). In that Kingdom, it is possible to say:

There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Col 3:11 NKJ)

Indeed, it is only in this eschatological form of existence that it makes sense to say there is neither Greek nor Jew…slave nor free…. My past is not the Lord of the present nor that which shapes the future.

The Eschatological Connection

We are all connected. We share a common history and we suffer for it. I stand by my father’s grave and note beside him his father’s grave. There are two empty plots beside my parents (one for me and one for a brother). My future was planned and paid for long ago. A small 3×6 plot of land in Pelzer, SC, is the world’s final word on my history. And I am right to stand by that plot of earth and rail at its tyranny. Death is an enemy.

But there is a greater connection and a true hope. The connection with the past is death. My life is my connection with the future, as the future is defined and created in the Risen Christ. Christ as the End of all things the proclamation of the gospel and the cornerstone of theology.

 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8 NKJ)

And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts. (Rev 21:6 NKJ)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.” (Rev 22:13 NKJ)

The word-play with verb tenses is similar to that of St. John’s. Christ does not say, “I was the Alpha, I will be the Omega, etc.” He is the beginning – He is the end.

The Sacrament of the End

To participate in Christ is to participate in the End. This is an utterly foundational understanding of the sacraments. The Eucharist is the Messianic Banquet. It does not remind us of something that happened, or make us think of something that will happen. In the Holy Eucharist, that which will be already is.

This is the healing connection. It is our mystical participation in the true life of Christ, that which was and is and is to come, that which overcomes history – a history that was and is no more. It is this healing connection that lies behind the types and allegories of the Old Testament. The Passover of the Jews does not merely “foreshadow,” the Pascha of Christ: it is the Pascha of Christ, hidden beneath the forms of history. For the Pascha of Christ was already before the Passover, because Christ, in all His fullness, was before the Passover. He is the “Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Every lamb ever sacrificed after that has some participation in The Lamb. The End was present in the beginning and has been shaping the world since its foundation. Christ is truly the Logos of all things, and the fullness of the Logos is only made known eschatologically. It is Christ as the End of all things that reveals the presence of Christ in all things.

Tradition and the End

History is tyranny. In its changelessness it refuses to forgive. What has been done has been done. But, again, the Scriptures are clear: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (ἐλευθερία)” (2 Cor. 3:17). The work of the Spirit is always inherently eschatological – wherever the Spirit is present – the freedom created by union with the End (Christ) is made present.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be truly free (Jn. 8:32 and 36).

The truth is eschatological in nature as well, for the truth of anything is only known in its end.

This is the strange aspect of Tradition that many do not understand. Tradition is not a function of history, but a work of the Spirit. The Church is not called to a conservative position – to guard its history with care. We are called to hold fast to that which was “once and for all” delivered to the saints. It is given “once and for all,” not as an aspect of history, but as the work of the Spirit, where history’s tyranny cannot reign. Thus the knowledge and truth given to the Church is not subject to the fading memory of aging history. Tradition is the very presence which makes all things continuously new. Those culture forces that others tout as “new” and “progressive,” are but the latest effects in history’s chain. They invite only bondage. Tradition, rightly understood, alone sets us free.

The healing we find in Christ, triumphant over history itself and the tyranny of cause and effect, is always the healing of a new creation. The Church lives the Divine Life of Christ in this world. That life, revealed in its fullness at the End of all things, is always, wherever it is present, already the End of all things. Tradition is not the shape of the past, but the shape of the future which ever draws us towards that final union.

Then comes the end, when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death….  Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:24-28 NKJ)

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.



36 responses to “Back to the Future”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, while I agree that historical determinism is heresy, I cannot agree with this:

    History is the stuff of which we are made, but it is not the stuff of God’s making. History is the collection of dead things, events and people who have passed into dust

    History, properly understood is not dead nor is it solely of human craft, but the warp and woof of all the human and even divine connections (known and unknown) that we have been talking about recently. I would say that such an understanding of history as you posit actually lends itself to seeing it as deterministic. It tends to make both the understanding of history and the Church seem dull and useless. It is bad pedagogy, IMO. What of relics?

    As Steve related in his post on another thread, history can be healed through repentance. As the work of Father Moses illustrates and you, yourself indicate, the pain never leaves us and must be offered up. That is not the fault of history, it is the fault of our own failure to enter into that pain, offer it up to God and repent.

    History is a vast multi-dimensional panoply of light, darkness, shades and colors that expresses both the height and the depth of the human soul. My mother likened it to a dynamic spiral which certainly lends itself to an eschatological interpretation (I’ve always seen it that way).

    We each have our own little piece of it but that piece is inter-connected with every other piece even in strictly natural ways. It is the natural that can bind us, but that does not make it dead or in the past. We can never know the past, not really.

    A concrete example: I worship in an Antiochian parish founded by refugees from Syria during the last great killing of Christians by their Moslem neighbors (before now) that also brought St. Raphael of Brooklyn to our shores. For too many years, I resisted the use of Arabic in the services because it appeared to me to be a relic of the past. Then Patriarch Ignatius of blessed memory reposed and our bishop gave a recounting of his life and belief. Suddenly, I understood, the tremendous power of the living continuity of the Church (which in fact brought me to the Church in the first place). The Arabic chanting contains the struggle of the people to be Christian since Apostolic times and is a living link to that faithfulness. There is great strength in that history. That dimension is something we lack there in the United States. I can only pray that God allows us the grace to develop it so that we can be rooted in this land as the Orthodox Christians of Syria are rooted in theirs.

    It is by allowing Christ to enter into our own personal history as He did into creation, that we are made new (not from the future but now) but transformed and transfigured into something God knows, but has never before been seen.

    Is that not a demonstration of the eschatological dimension of the Church that both permeates time, matter and created being while at the same time transcends it so that it is all in all giving life to those in the tombs?

  2. TLO Avatar

    I’m a little perplexed. How can History be bad but Tradition is not? Isn’t tradition simply history lived up close and personal?

    Tradition is not a function of history

    It seems that once again you are redefining the meanings of words. I can find no definition of “tradition” that is even remotely in accordance to how you are terming it. (I’m wondering if you should use (or coin) a word other than “tradition” here.)

    I have this niggling feeling that you are making an argument that is rather like “there are no tears in the kingdom that is to come, therefore the tyranny of tears is heresy.”

    History, like suffering and joy and all things that make us human, is an important part of the human experience. Demonizing it seems to put down humanity as being bad in its own right.

    For humans, history is extremely important, whether we are talking about the history of our families or our people group or our nation. To say “history as destiny is heresy” may be correct but certainly “history as trajectory” cannot be denied. We use it to tell where we are headed so that we can (if we have the will) make course corrections. Without it, all the woebegone predictions that we hear all around us are meaningless. Certainly history is invaluable to humans.

    Other thoughts…

    When we talk of “tradition” there is no doubt that more weight is given to the early Church Fathers simply because of their historical proximity to Christ’s life and the lives of the first apostles than is given to later theologians. The traditions were formed by these men. I don’t understand the attempt to divorce History and Tradition.

    I am also confused about the term “History as tyranny.” In a separate post you spoke at length about “revisionist history” which, to me, is evidence that history is not tyrannical to those who choose to look at it from a fresh perspective.

    Closer to home, within the Christian world there are very different views on history and these largely explain (or excuse) people’s theological positions. The Orthodox take a very different view of the history of the church than do Anglicans or Calvinists or those nutjobs in the Charismatic Episcopal Church who want to marry extreme Protestant thinking to the parts of Orthodoxy that don’t offend them too much.

    What I’m trying to say (and very badly I suppose) is that I don’t think there is such a thing as “history” upon which all parties can agree. We each see what we want (or what we can) and are blind to an awful lot that others see.

    To me, history showcases that humans are the same today as they have been since we started making records. There is nothing new under the sun.

  3. TLO Avatar

    History is a vast multi-dimensional panoply of light, darkness, shades and colors that expresses both the height and the depth of the human soul. My mother likened it to a dynamic spiral which certainly lends itself to an eschatological interpretation (I’ve always seen it that way).

    We each have our own little piece of it but that piece is inter-connected with every other piece even in strictly natural ways. It is the natural that can bind us, but that does not make it dead or in the past. We can never know the past, not really.

    I should have read this first before I offered my paltry views. Well said Michael.

  4. davidp Avatar

    Fr…thanks for this post. I been sort of a history nut since my teens trying to figure out what happened in the past to shape the policies and attitudes of a people or a nation. But what you posted grip me:

    we realize that our existence in Christ is not historical, per se. We live in “history.” But we are creatures of the kingdom which is to come. Theologically we say that our existence is eschatological. The life that I am living day by day, is being created from the future.

    At 73, I am starting to realize what the desert monks have said many times….to think about death. Being a pastor long ago working with hospice patients made me aware of this but much more now-a-days.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Do proper “eschatological” thought certainly causes disruptions with how we think about history, etc. Obviously, we live in space and time, and things that are past have an impact and even a lasting presence in the present.

    But modern man thinks of history with no reference to the eschaton at all, other than thinking of the “end” as what history will be when it gets there. It certainly does not think of the End as something that is not only present, but that was present before any history began.

    What I am pressing with this short article that presents some basic understandings of Orthodox eschatology – nothing unusual in what I’m saying, except that it is not said often enough – what I am pressing is the fact that it is only the encounter of the End with any given moment (in time) that gives that moment lasting, eternal significance. Significance is not a part of the past – but is part of Christ – who, though also dwelling in the past – always transcends it.

    If Orthodox Syria were not presently and everywhere encountering the transcendent Lord who is the End and fulfillment of Orthodox Syria, then Orthodox Syria would simply be a sad historical artifact. But it is not an artifact – it is a present sacrament of the Kingdom which is to come. The “stuff” of history – culture, language, customs, etc., – like the flesh taken from the womb of the Virgin – are united with Christ – raised into Divinity (the Kingdom). They then become truly sacramental.

    In this article, I’ve used the word “history” in the sense of the passing of space and time without reference to Christ – to the End.

    How did a Greek become a Christian without utterly denouncing everything that was ever Greek (and pagan). Not by trying to create a revisionist history that retold Greek history. But by embracing the End that always was and is the fulfillment of what was Greek. In that fulfillment, Greek and Jew meet together as one and not as rivals or enemies.

    Chew on the article a little. This stuff is in Schmemann, but often not considered by many.

    We should also be honest together and note that ethnic history is both blessing and curse. Some aspects of it save, and some aspects of it smother and kill. In what I am writing, I would describe those smothering, killing aspects as “history.” The saving aspects are in union with the Eschaton and give life.

    Relics are inherently eschatological – it is only by the Holy Spirit that they have any significance and are not just dead men’s bones. The miracle of relics is that though “historical,” they clearly participate in life – they are yet living. But the Holy Spirit is not something we bury and dig up or something like radiation permeating our bones with a half-life or something. The Holy Spirit is always free – always gift – never possession or object. Holy relics are not at all like objects. It is well known that they sometimes “seek” people out. That they “go where they want to go.” Or even like the relics of a well-known saint (whose identity eludes my failing memory), have to have its shoes changed every 10 years because they wear out. The relics of a saint are not interesting for who they used to be. They are interesting for who they are.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    You’re not going to find Orthodox theological definitions in an English dictionary. The meanings are too specialized. If you want to read on the Orthodox understanding of Tradition, read V. Lossky’s Tradition and Traditions. It’s ploughing through that stuff that should make people glad of the relative clarity I offer on the blog. 🙂

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I guess I’m not much of a modern man. All that you say in the first three paragraphs is pretty much what I was saying. History has always been alive to me and inherently eschatological (once I learned the term), thanks to my parents.

    My father was 47 when I was born and a true pioneer/cowboy. He had an entirely different ethos about him than the generation from which my father would have normally come. My mother just saw deeply into the roots of things and often people with a spirit akin to the Native American understanding of creation, its connection to the divine and its unfolding. She was the first one to communicate the idea of sacrament to me with her understanding of Native American Dance as communal prayer to help promote harmony.

    She never really saw an end though. My mother based her idea on the golden mean of Greek esthetics which was mathematically described later by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci. The Golden Mean is an intrinsic part of the natural creation that God put there. For her it was iconic. She even based some of her dance creations on it.

    Christian eschatology vastly exceeds, completes and fulfills the natural understanding which my mother had or my father, but is not wholly separate from it.

    The study of history has been such a formidable gift to me in forming my life and, by grace, helping me get to the Church. I just hate to hear it called ‘dead’ in any sense. And it saddens me that so many simply ignore the gifts that are contained in it.

    Your use of the word history is actually better fulfilled by the word chronology, IMO. It is the linear, time-bound existence that begins with our birth and ends for each person only in death. The chronology of others is dead and only tangential to my own, but our histories

    As far as ethnic roots being both a blessing and a curse, of course, but which of us does not have an ethnicity and ethnic baggage and does not tend to be ethno-centric. That was part of my problem in resisting the use of Arabic and being unhappy about it. I was freed of that in an epiphany that penetrated my selfishness and let me see more of the truth.

    (A Personal Commentary follows)
    Orthodoxy is not an easy fit into any part of the American ethnicity founded as it is on individual rationalism and rebellion. The real tragedy, IMO, is that too many seem to feel (Russian, Greek, Syrian) as if our ethos is impenetrable and not worthy or subject to salvation so Christ is not brought to bear as He should be. Nominalism and worldliness or outright rejection of the Church is the typical result. In a sense, I see that as a rejection of history and the consequent embracing of an archaic chronology.

    I am in no way disagreeing with you. I believe I understand what you are saying just translating it. Nevertheless, I will continue to ponder you message. Thank you for you kindness and patience.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Modern man may be in the worst of situations. He despises history and ignores it, and thus becomes far more its victim because he doesn’t understand where he came from, how he got here, or anything else around him. He is the ignorant puppet.

    The Christian should know history – it’s important. But the history, again, will fall meaningless unless it is in communion with its proper goal. In communion, history is sacrament. Out of communion, something treasured simply for itself, it’s just death, and a collection of death. But I think you have agreed with all of that.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    TLO, Great question. Your questions are often quite good and I appreciate their honesty. I hope that the answers given here are helpful to you.

    Tradition is in no way history, even in the more comprehensive understanding of history I promote. All history is, to a certain extent, bound by time, conditioned by time and is largely a function of the human consciousness which includes our deep sinfulness. It is wholly natural even when it reveals the divine reality.

    Tradition is solely the gift of the Holy Spirit meant for our edification and transformation so that we may be lifted out of history and into the timeless, unlimited reality of the Kingdom.

    While Holy Tradition may be articulated in slightly different ways in different times and places, it is effectively beyond time as we know it. Something that history can only point to but never realize.

    The Arabic language chant which I have now come to deeply appreciate, if not yet love, conveys both the struggle through time and the fullness of Holy Tradition that the English language can yet quite do. The Greek of the Fathers and to a lesser extent the Russian of that land’s God-bearing elders have a depth to them also that are, as yet, un-translatable, not because of linguistic difficulties per se, but because they are filled with the understanding of the Church across time and outside history. Yet, somehow, by grace, we are able to receive the deposit of faith and life given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

    It is a mystery to be sure and I don’t mean to use that term to avoid questions. I simply don’t know how that can be, but know it is. Despite all of the vicissitudes of human sinfulness.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, absolutely, I agree.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It was the unleashing of the demonic and nihilistic spirit in the last half of the 19th century combined with the industrial revolution that made us “modern”.

    The philosophical leaders: Marx, Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche described the journey and gave it a respectability and power it would not have had otherwise. Of course, it would not have occurred if the roots into Holy Tradition were not already greatly weakened by 800 years of schism and 300 years of religious rebellion.

    We have been largely rootless and subject to historical determinism and a utilitarian mechanistic view of being ever since. That is the fundamental core of modernity. The natural and logical consequence of such unholy thinking is destruction, depravity and the worship of death and power.

    Only those rooted in the living eschatology of the Church and Jesus Christ incarnate, can hope to survive the miasmic flood. Yet, the Church will survive because she is the rock. Unfortunately, many will be swept away to their seeming doom. Even here though, as contemporary elders remind us, the mercy of Christ can prevail.

    Glory to God for all things is an affirmation of that truth an active prayer and an attitude that will cause the dark flood to flow around us, but not overwhelm us.

    By your prayers, Father.

  12. Kev Avatar

    It seems to me that history, in the sense that you are talking about, is a process of decay. The tendency of creation to die, fall toward non-existence. Another word for this entropy is time. History tries to mark time.

    Christ put death (entropy) to death. So He, and we who are in Him, are certainly living in the future. And tradition, what has been handed down, is handed down from beyond time. So it is eschatological.

    But we are left here in time for a while till we fulfill all things. That Christ would be all in all. We are here for the wold’s sake. For it is trapped in history. And we are trapped with it, in appearance only, for its’ sake. We are in the wold but not of it. So we have one foot on earth and one in heaven, so to speak. Or, better yet, our feet in the world but our head in heaven.

  13. TLO Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    You’re not going to find Orthodox theological definitions in an English dictionary.

    Then I must abandon reading this blog. I speak English and understand its words as they are universally accepted. I can’t suspend that without falling off into Wonderland.


    Tradition is solely the gift of the Holy Spirit meant for our edification and transformation so that we may be lifted out of history and into the timeless, unlimited reality of the Kingdom.

    By this do you mean specifically Orthodox tradition or do you also include other traditions (or “tradition” as a concept)?

    The Arabic language chant which I have now come to deeply appreciate,…have a depth to them…

    Looking at it objectively, is some of this depth at all related to the fact that the culture from which they sprung are foreign to you? I ask because I wonder if it contains the same depth to the natives as it does to one new to the experience.

    I have learned, in my travels abroad, that often when I encounter a perspective on something with which I am familiar from the eyes of someone whose culture adds a tincture to that thing which I had not considered, I am enriched by the proffered perspective but, being me, I am more so enlightened into the culture from which it sprung. And so, I receive a “double-blessing” if you will (and you will) by such encounters. Not polluting the one with the other is often difficult for people and so the two often seep into one another and become something less than they are individually.

    My mother just saw deeply into the roots of things and often people with a spirit akin to the Native American understanding of creation…

    You are truly blessed to have such a rich heritage. I have often wondered how much we Europeans lost by killing off the natives of this continent rather than trying to understand them and coexist. It seems that Western history is plagued with the drive to ride roughshod over anything in its way and destroy things that are beautiful and helpful. I have grieved over this more than once.

  14. TLO Avatar


    It seems to me that history, in the sense that you are talking about, is a process of decay.

    Is that the whole of it? Or is there also renewal and growth after the decay? If nature is any guide, decay is a necessary component of life.

  15. Jonathan Anderson Avatar

    I love how you hit on being defined by eschatology. i believe that that is also a very key thing to understand about ethics in two ways: 1) the majority of NT ethical exhortations are informed by eschatology, meaning that right living is impt. for the moment for the Parousia is coming and 2) that we need to stop and evaluate who we are in Christ and who we want to be and act accordingly. great insights Father.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nonsense. All specialties have a specialized vocabulary not usually found in popular dictionaries. To learn anything at all is to learn its language quirks.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    TLO. Don’t get grumpy. Just listen, place the words in context and infer. When in doubt

    Does the Arabic carry the same weight for the native speakers? Probably not for all, but for our chief chanter who was born in Lebanon, it does. For a chanter who still lives there, but was visiting his son and chanted while he was visiting it does. He made Arabic an angelic language.

    English has its own cability but it is not yet rooted in the Church.

  18. […] Back to the Future – Glory to God For All Things (OX) […]

  19. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    “…ploughing through that stuff…” not only Lossky, but also Met. Zizioulias, Evdokimov, Loudovikos & several others I might add!

    “…that should make people glad of the relative clarity I offer on the blog…”

    Oh, most definitely! BTW, thanks for doing the hard part for us 😉

  20. Dionysio Avatar

    F. Stephan,

    This was superbly written! I do, however, have philosophical questions with the intent of greater understanding. If these are bad questions- I nonetheless learn from that discovery as well. Please do not hesitate to point out as I am a layman and I am admittedly, still learning Orthodox Vocabulary. You wrote;

    “Those culture forces that others tout as “new” and “progressive,” are but the latest effects in history’s chain. They invite only bondage. Tradition, rightly understood, alone sets us free.”

    And you also referenced Lossky’s article which states;

    “One cannot belong to the Tradition while contradicting the dogmas, just as one cannot make use of the dogmatic formulas received in order to oppose a formal “orthodoxy” to every new expression of the Truth that the life of the Church may produce. The first attitude is that of revolutionary innovators, of false prophets who sin against the expressed Truth, against the Incarnate Word, in the name of the Spirit to which they lay claim. The second is that of the conservative formalists, pharisees of the Church who, in the name of the habitual expressions of Truth, run the risk of sinning against the Spirit of Truth.”


    One- Within the eschatological form of existence whereby Truth cannot be ultimately known in this existence, does Orthodoxy itself (in the virtuous pursuit of protection of truth via secrecy) participate in or enable the very creation of cultural forces which you condemn as inviting bondage?

    Two- Again as implied in Lossky’s article via noting there are times when the church declares tradition publicly; is the growth of these cultures (ie..”new agers”) a signal that the church should become more transparent in the very traditions it tries to protect via secrecy?

    Three- How does a layman like me reconcile declarations in both these camps (progressives and Orthodoxy) when both sides will admit that Truth cannot be ultimately known and one preaches many paths while the other preaches one path?

    I hope these make sense.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very serious questions – “meaty.”

    One – I’m not sure that I would want to say that the “Truth cannot be ultimately known in this existence” (meaning, I think, in this historical setting). We should be careful not to think of “Truth” as a fact, or object to be known in terms of mastery, or known in a way that it can be used. So again, I’m redefining terms somewhat (but this is required in an eschatological framework). For example, I would utterly affirm that in the Eucharist, the offerings of Bread and Wine “know” the Truth of the Messianic Banquet. They know the truth because they are the truth. And in receiving them, we eat and drink the truth.

    Lossky’s use of the notion of “secrecy” is not the idea of knowing something and then not telling it, using secrecy as a kind of power, much like some would imagine the Vatican (especially if you’re reading a Da Vinci Code novel). Some things remain “secret” or unspoken, because they transcend the ability to speak or make known in conventional manners.

    Lossky is wonderful here – and I’ll use his example. In the Eucharist, we have the Truth – the Body and Blood of Christ – given to us for union and participation – for a living union with the Truth that transforms us and truly heals the wounds of our souls, recreating us according to the image of Christ. But Lossky warns of “conservative formalists…who in the name of the habitual expressions of Truth, run the risk of sinning against the Spirit of Truth.” The “Truth” in the Eucharist has indeed found a certain public expression. And there are many who now “defend” Eucharistic doctrine, use it to bash others, or treat it like a syllogism (just trying to create an example of what Lossky says). It is possible in “defending” the Eucharist, to not actually, truly and rightly participate in the Eucharist. It becomes a holy “idea,” and not the Truth-made-present. It is thus reduced to the merely historical, an argument. This is what Lossky means.

    The same dynamic could easily be replicated. To a degree, the current debate surrounding marriage is similar. The mystery of the union of a man and woman easily becomes just a historical institution, with marriage itself failing to truly participate in the Truth. The divorce rate among believers (including the Orthodox), the abortion rate among believers (including the Orthodox) render very thin and hollow the Church’s language about the mystery. If in a short turn, that hollowed language is used in debate and argument, it runs the danger that Lossky warns about.

    The only proper Eschatological argument for the Church is the same as the one offered by Christ: the sign of the Prophet Jonah. Only the living manifestation of the Resurrection, the tabernacling of the Truth among men, has validity as an eschatological argument. It is this lack of manifestation that makes the Church little more than a voice of conservatism.

    Two – the answer above probably applies here as well. The Church does not need transparency – it needs reality. If we do not become the gospel, then there is nothing to say. It is this reality that drives the importance of monasticism in Orthodoxy. Monasticism is, more than anything, the eschatological existence.

    Three – it is the reality, the true manifestation of the Life of Christ that we seek, not philosophical anything (agreement, reconciliation, etc.). “The Kingdom of God,” St. Paul says, “Is not in word, but in power.”

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Truth is not just an abstract idea, sought and known with the mind, but something personal—even a Person—sought and loved with the heart, Jesus Christ
    Fr. Seraphim Rose

    I sometimes wish that the mysteries were more guarded than they are, not of gnostic pride, but because they are so easily defamed and misused. However, no matter how open we are, much is unknowable outside the Church. No matter how much catechesis is done or how good it is, no matter how much one reads, the heart of the Church is the communion with Jesus Christ which has to be entered into.

    As with all of the mysteries, they have to be entered into. Even some of those who have that opportunity because they have been received, baptized and Christmated fail to do so. Well, we all fail to do so to some extent.

    If the people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14

  23. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    Fr Stephen, what is the source for that wonderful quote from St John Chrysostom? TIA.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    TLO: Holy Tradition within the Orthodox Church is the fullness of truth revealed by the Holy Spirit (even when we are blind to it). In this sense the Church is iconic and a bit like the chalice of the Eucharist. What is given to us in such abundance overflows to all. Those that seek the truth will find the truth. The more they want, the more they will be drawn to the font of truth.

    Those that prefer lies, whether inside the Church or outside will be drawn to the father of lies.

    Those that are satisfied with the natural will never see beyond the natural. Those who want the transfiguration of the Holy Spirit in their inmost heart, will always see beyond the natural and never be satisfied with it. They too will be drawn to the only place where one may safely and with wisdom enter into that transfiguration, the Orthodox Church.

    My parents were not Orthodox. I came to the Church relatively late in life. Yet, my parents implanted in me a hunger for “what’s out beyond” and at the same time near at hand that which gives sustenance and reality to the physical world. Despite that great gift, I could also see that they had never quenched that hunger and so were not at peace.

    I wanted the transformation, the communion, not just the knowledge. In the process, I explored experientially and intellectually a vast expanse of spiritual/religious beliefs. I rather quickly settled on Christianity in general because, to me, the Christian paradigm was the only tradition that had the answer to the questions of who is man, who is God and how do the two inter-relate. Getting to the Church from there, however was a 20 year journey with a lot of side tracks. Finally, I came to the Church and knew two things: Jesus Christ is here, really here and He wants me to be with Him (inexplicably).

    Everything in the last 26 years has merely deepened my appreciation of my original impression and peace has begun to flower in my heart, a small ember but there.

    However, I could not have arrived here were it not that the life of the Holy Spirit overflows through the Church into all the world, into every heart and finds expression in all good things.

    Many years ago in a park in Fargo, ND a man asked me if I was convinced that what I was doing at the time was true. I said, “Yes, but if I find it is not or I find a deeper truth, I will change.” I have found the font of truth and am, reluctantly, allowing Him to change me.

    The old CW song: “I’m just an old lump of coal, but I’m gonna to be a diamond some day” expresses it pretty well, but only in the Church can one find the right conditions for that to be accomplished. The lives of the Orthodox saints show forth that splendor and beauty in a manner unmatched anywhere else.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Aidan,

    It’s from the anaphora of his liturgy. (limitations of the Western rite) 🙂

    Both his anaphora and that of St. Basil are perhaps the most sublime, simple and straightforward expressions of the faith – which is as it should be.

  26. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    “It’s from the anaphora of his liturgy. (limitations of the Western rite) :)”

    That’s embarrassing. I will now slink back into lurking mode. 🙂

  27. TLO Avatar


    Those that are satisfied with the natural will never see beyond the natural.

    I beg to differ for two reasons:

    1) I was raised (actually marinated) in Christianity. After 43 years of interminable hooptious froomdraggle and theoretic convolutions of every sort, it seems to me that a key reason why people “will always see beyond the natural and never be satisfied with it” is because it is fraught with speculation and by its very nature is unknowable. Not a very tenable position for a rational mind, such as mankind has.

    2) While I agree that there is a certain amount of satisfaction with the natural (after all, “reason” is a natural phenomenon and is only happy when it has answers that can be verified), there is so much to the natural world that there is n possibility of mankind ever knowing all there is to know. And so, we will never be “satisfied” in that regard. But at least we can say with certainty that we know what we know and can demonstrate why we know it. To me, this is more than enough. Why should we venture into the unknowable when there is yet so much knowable to attain?

  28. TLO Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    Nonsense. All specialties have a specialized vocabulary not usually found in popular dictionaries.

    If you are talking about things like “quarks” or “singularity” or “monopoles” it is clear that these are specialized words. I have no problem with that. I encourage such for the sake of clarity.

    I am unaware of any such specialization that takes a common word and usurps its meaning. For example, the word “landscape” within the realm of string theory, though it has a unique meaning in that context, does not venture to say that the common meaning of the word is not valid (as you seem to have done with words like “reality” and “tradition”).

    If I was to say that the word “Eschatological” now means the energetic essence of a yellow Wolpertinger during the first seventeen days of it’s third pregnancy provided that it’s wings are of differing length and colors and the ambient temperature of its environment is above 1.04719755 radians, you’d call me mad (mostly because Wolpertingers are brown or gray, of course. Silly to think of one being yellow!).

    I am trying very hard to understand but I’m going to have to beg off if we can’t agree that words mean things. White is white and black is black. Once we start messing with what these mean, we have no common ground.

    Thanks for allowing me to rant. I’m going to take some time off to fly to Spain, by which I mean I am going to pull the weeds in the yard.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    TLO, I would not think for a minute that you are satisfied with the natural. There do exist people who are however and live their lives without thought or concern for anything more than their emotional experience and what they can touch, see, hear, smell and taste.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    TLO, it is not that the common meanings of the words (even in the current debasement of English we typically use) are invalid, it is just that there are other dimensions to those words. It is a stretch sometimes, I’ll grant you that but most folks can make the stretch.

    One has to open up one’s mind and heart to a truly transcendent reality and a tradition not made with hands.

    It is the world of the icon.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    This complaint makes little sense to me. It’s as if you never read anything (which I know is not true). But every form of serious thought struggles with the meanings of words. Plato is about almost nothing else.
    Sometimes you seem to like staking out a position that as an agnostic, secularist (or whatever), that you’re just doing the normal thing and wonder what religious people are doing, and want them to explain themselves since we’re so unagnostic. But I think its a false position and a pretense.
    I understand and accept that you don’t believe some things. But you don’t believe them not because they’re just not normal, though you seem to claim that. You have for yourself decided what normal, safe, trustworthy, etc. are, and you dare us to convince you otherwise.
    I don’t really think such a thing is possible. That is, I don’t think it’s really possible to convince anyone of anything that they don’t already want to believe. And that includes your present situation. You believe what you do, not because it’s easy, natural, etc., but because you want to – and you want to – largely because of your past experiences that were unpleasant. I understand that – but I’m not doing strange things with language, etc. My use of words might make you think – but that’s what words are for!

  32. Dino Avatar

    This is superb!
    I wish I had more time to study this whole conversation too – as I am away on hols – Thanks you Father…. May God bless you as he always does and us through you!

  33. Rhonda Avatar


    I understand where you are coming from about the meanings of words, ideas & doctrines. When I was a catechumen I told my priest that I felt like He had flipped me upside-down with blood rushing into my head clouding everything up. Words, ideas & doctrines just didn’t make sense to me anymore.

    His response: “No, we’ve turned you right side up. You’ve been living upside-down in an upside-down Protestant theology for a very long time. That sense of confusion you have is blood rushing out of your head & your mind clearing. Relax, your confusion will lessen as your thoughts become aright.There is a depth to Orthodoxy to which you will become accustomed & even crave.”

    He was right 🙂

    TLO, you have frequently stated that you frequent this blog because the Orthodox can discuss theology in thought-provoking ways, even calling us “sane” Christians at one time. You do yourself & us a disservice by insisting on stringent, literalistic & secular meanings to words. It may seem so, but we are not really calling things yellow that are brown/gray. Fr. Stephen is presenting Orthodoxy, not the literalistic or secular. This means that we may have to stretch our thinking in how words are used rather than restrict our meaning of words.

    Even after 21 years of discussion & interaction, a word can mean different things to me & my husband! So we talk & explain our perspectives, but we never insist that the other adopt or adapt to our own.

  34. Kev Avatar

    TLO> and all. We too often ask “what do you think”? Then proceed to construct something that we can all admire. We truth seekers might make the mistake of assuming that “truth” is the correct line of thinking. And that reason is a spiritual corse to God. (our protestant upbringing) But reason will always fall short. Reason is not created for that journey. For truth, in the final analysis is a person. Jesus Christ. And our journey must be to Him alone.

    So instead of asking “what do you think”? the real question is ” who do you worship”? And I have not met anyone yet who truly found the truth without first tearing down the idol of his reason. For finding the “truth” really is a matter of the heart and who it worships. There are times when our thinking just gets in the way.

    So the task that Fr. Stephen has set before him is a very difficult one. He must try to get the heart though the mind. His is skillful at this. But that is why it can be so exasperating for some of us truth seekers. There is a little tearing down of our idols ” our reason” as our heart is beginning to wake up.

    So it is to be expected that some things just simply do not make since at first. Or that words fail. That meanings get confused. Be patient …….

  35. Dino Avatar

    Michael, TLO,
    I thank God even for the trials and tribulations he allows in order to make “Those that are satisfied with the natural” and who “will never see beyond the natural” any other way, realise their delusion. If it wasn’t for them I would have long perished.


    “The true manifestation of the Life of Christ that we seek, ….” is indeed kept in its highest perfection by Orthodox monastic hesychasm. It might be scandalous to some, but it remains the truth, it really does. A Saint of the highest magnitude “in the world”, a great Martyr for instance, or a Miraculous Father like Saint Spyridon -(he’s the one whose shoes need changing Father mentioned), or the more recent miraculous Saint John of Kronstadt who was truly (and knew this consciously) a ‘manager’ on Earth of God’s things (!) still has a lesser (far lesser) ‘direct knowledge of God’ in this life as compared to some unknown hesychast who sees no-one and is communing with the Creator of all in an ever increasing state of participation and in total solitude.

    This has been verified time and again. Elder Sophrony expressed in a particularly simple way concerning himself (he had lived both states over the course of his long life).
    He would say that if Grace has, say, 12 degrees, man can only function in everyday life up to the 6th degree – and with great difficulty.
    God ‘lessened’ the perceivable grace he had bestowed on him in this very fashion when he became a Spiritual Father and lived among the people in Essex, ministering to their salvation. He did not complain of course; but, he had known the far higher degrees of Grace and that first hand knowledge of God Himself – though only when he lived in the hesychastic desert of the Holy Mountain (in the cave)…

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, to me it would be extraordinarily difficult to remain in the “natural only” existence because, as you mention, that can easily put you in a position where you face the “God or death” question. Even in the natural, the life of God is there. It is just that there are so many lies circulating in the natural realm as Fr. Stephen continually reminds us.

    That, IMO, is a bit of what happened to the U.S. in the last 50 years. After WWII, we went into a mode of apathetic belief, an assumption of God without real belief. The cascade of excesses that have followed have created a situation where people must either embrace God or mammon.

    On the face of it, it should be an easy choice, but we all struggle, even with God’s grace, to extricate ourselves for the lies that bind.

    The best explanation I’ve ever heard for that was lately given by my priest : “We love our sins”. We love the created and the fallen more than we love God, sometimes even if our life depends on it.

    To me that is at least one reason why the hesychasist hermits are able to get closer to God than we in the world. In the world, our love of the created is constantly being reinforced in a way that the person praying in the cave avoids, I think.

    For Elder Sophrony to leave the one to come back to the other must have been a bit like jumping into a pit of vipers with fingers snatching at him to reintroduce the poison. All the more reason he should be officially sanctified. Is there any movement in that direction of which you are aware?

    The Elder’s degree system sounds a bit like the belt system of martial arts. Hmmmm

    Lord we need some black belts to lead and instruct us in the art of spiritual warfare.

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