When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I

In the ancient civilizations of the Near East there were strange stories about the place of chaos in the beginning of all things – and the chaos is specifically located in water. It seems odd to me that people who largely lived in arid countries should imagine the world beginning as a watery chaos – but that is certainly what they did.

The Egyptians imagined the world’s beginning as a watery chaos (the god, Nun). It is from this watery thing that the god, Atum, generates himself and then creates the other gods. The Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, said that before there were any other gods, and before the heaven and earth were set in place, there were only Apsu (the freshwater ocean) and Tiamat (the saltwater ocean). The god Marduk slayed Tiamat (who was also a chaos creature) and from her created the heavens and the earth.

All of this, of course, seems quite foreign to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is a sample, however, of the cultures in the midst of which their faith was revealed. It also provides a backdrop that shows how unique and striking the creation story in Genesis truly is.

There are echoes of these cosmic battles embedded in various places in the Scriptures:

 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Hidden from our modern eyes but visible in the Hebrew is the “Tiamat” monster. It is within the word for “without form” (tohu) and “deep” (tehom). But in our Hebrew account, there is no slaying of a monster, no polytheistic struggle. Rather, there is God (Elohim) who simply speaks, and accomplishes the creation. There is a watery chaos, now raised up into a theological account of extreme sophistication. It is a repudiation of the surrounding culture-myths – but it is still rendered in a language that knows that culture.

In St. John’s gospel, there is something similar. He opens with reference to the Logos, a concept completely familiar to earlier Greek philosophy. But where philosophy sees an abstraction, St. John proclaims the particular: this Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us.” He takes the language and ideas of a surrounding culture and transforms them into the stuff of true revelation. In many ways, this is very much a part of the Incarnation.

Every year around Christmas time, we begin to hear noises about Christmas trees having “pagan origins.” And there are many who rush to the defense of the poor trees. I yawn. My ancestors worshipped trees, and I daresay their later Christian descendants were glad to see the Church baptizing the trees as well as people. There simply is no “pristine” matter from which the faith starts fresh. God always speaks and reveals Himself in terms that can be assimilated. He does not destroy culture, but fulfills it. The Christmas tree is a stark reminder that the Child born on that day has a rendezvous with a Tree, and that there is no getting around it. There is a Tree at the heart of our faith, even as there was at the heart of the Garden.

CS Lewis once opined that pagan mythology consisted of “good dreams sent by God to prepare for the coming of Christ.” Such myths can also carry deep darkness and confusion – but such is the nature of a world that is broken. God does not offer us redemption by destroying a broken world. He does not erase or eradicate the cultures of mankind. It is only a darkened theology that imagines every production of the human imagination to be worthy only of the dung heap. That sort of destructive view belongs to the scions of Calvin and the iconoclasm of Wahabis: it is not the work of God.

The Egyptian and Mesopotamian images that found their way into the Scriptures reflect an instinct about a primal struggle. Order and well-being are not givens: they are the result of an intervention. Both the Psalms and Isaiah take some of these images up into poetic praise:

O LORD God of hosts, Who is mighty like You, O LORD?
Your faithfulness also surrounds You.
You rule the raging of the sea;
When its waves rise, You still them.
You have broken Rahab in pieces, as one who is slain;
You have scattered Your enemies with Your mighty arm.
The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours;
The world and all its fullness, You have founded them. (Ps. 89:8-11)


Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD! Awake as in the ancient days, In the generations of old.
Are You not the arm that cut Rahab apart, And wounded the serpent?
Are You not the One who dried up the sea, The waters of the great deep;
That made the depths of the sea a road For the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness;
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 51:9-11)

Reading along without a commentary, it would be easy to assume that Rahab is a country or a ruler. However, it is the name of an ancient chaos sea-monster. But in the Psalms and Isaiah, this pagan sea-monster is vanquished and subdued by the God of Israel. It is not meant as a literal account. The imagery has been taken up to express God’s dominion over all things and His victory over chaos. Israel, brought into the Promised Land, is God’s ordering of the world, a restoration of “Eden,” in a manner of speaking (Ez. 36:35).

All of this imagery is taken up in the Christian faith in the Church’s meditations on the Baptism of Christ. The Western tradition (Catholic and Protestant) has long neglected this feast, only giving it attention in the past 50 years or so. In the East, the Baptism of Christ (Theophany) follows Christmas by 12 days, the same day that the West honors the visit of the Magi. A major reason for the West’s neglect of this feast, I suspect, is its strangeness to the later atonement theories that became popular. Jesus has no sin to be washed away; He is guilty of nothing. His Baptism thus stands as a contradiction to later Western accounts of the sacrament.

But in the Eastern Church, the Baptism of Christ takes up these Old Testament references of struggle with the watery chaos. Christ’s entry into the waters is understood as a foreshadowing of His entrance into Hades. It is a defeat of the hostile powers. The same theme runs throughout the sacrament of Baptism itself. The destruction of the demons is easily the strongest theme within that service:

Because of the tender compassion of Your mercy, O Master, You could not endure to behold mankind oppressed by the Devil; but You came and saved us. We confess Your grace. We proclaim Your mercy. We do not conceal Your gracious acts. You have delivered the generation of our mortal nature. By Your birth You sanctified a Virgin’s womb. All creation magnifies You, for You have revealed Yourself. For You, O our God, have revealed Yourself upon the earth, and have dwelled among men. You hallowed the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven Your Holy Spirit, and crushed the heads of the demons [“dragons” in some translations] who lurked there.

The poetry of Psalm 74 becomes part of the Baptismal service, and thus a Paschal hymn:

For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by Your strength:
You crushed the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You broke the heads of leviathan [another sea monster] in pieces,
and gave him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
You cleaved the fountain and the flood:
You dried up mighty rivers.
The day is Yours, the night also is Yours:
You have prepared the light and the sun. (Ps. 74:12-16)

For those who are unfamiliar with Pascha and Baptism in an “Eastern key,” this language can seem quite odd. It is the dominant image of salvation within the Eastern Church. The great hymn of Pascha, repeated seemingly hundreds of times in that season, is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” It is not a hymn of payment, or punishment, but of going into the strongman’s kingdom, binding him and setting free those who are held captive. The heads of the dragons are crushed, the heads of leviathan are broken in pieces, Rahab has been cut apart.

I have seen false comparisons between East and West, where the West is credited with an emphasis on the Cross and the East with an ephasis on the Resurrection. It is a comparison that only a Westerner would make. Within the East, the Cross and the Resurrection are not separated – they are a single action devastating the adversary, leading captivity captive and setting all of the captives free. This is the Lord’s Passover.

Dragons and chaos beware.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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38 responses to “When Chaos Ruled the World – Part I”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless,
    I took a class in Seminary taught by one of the foremost Hebrew Scholars of today. It was entitled “The Bible Among the Myths” (Dr John Oswalt). He taught much of what you are writing today showing the marked differences between the narrative of the Scriptures and the Pagan Creation Myths (BTW Leviathan is the Canaanite version of Tiamut and Baal is the hero). I concur with your emphasis on the importance of the Baptism of the Lord as not only a foreshadowing of His descent into Hades but also as a counter point to pagan beliefs. I had not though of why the West ignores Theophany, but your reasoning is sound. Baptism is either degraded into a mere symbolic act or ignored altogether. I know a man who constantly preaches that Baptism is unnecessary for salvation as well as communion. Now I can see the connection with the heretical doctrines of atonement and this position.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Yes, my former Willow Creek associated Evangelical Church stopped requiring baptism or even membership for partaking of communion several years ago. If baptism and communion are not necessary in any sense for “salvation”, and for effectively communicating something of the nature of saving faith, why bother at all? It was when the pastor started prefacing the serving of communion with the disclaimer “this is not magical; it is not mystical” making explicit the Zwinglian theology of that church, any shred of meaning for these rituals (as real connection with Christ in His Death and Resurrection) in that denomination evaporated for me. It would be many years before I found my way to Orthodoxy, but I can mark that period as the beginning of the end of my anabaptist beliefs.

  3. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    Thanks for the lines where you note that God doesn’t eradicate culture nor what humans might produce/ create. There is so much in cultures that is good…great art, religious or otherwise, wonderful architecture, classical music…can I include bluegrass? :), the beauty of many farms, cultural dances and dress…all reading this could add their own items. Sometimes monasticism can even lean toward Puritanism as far as a disdain for anything in the world. Too bad if this happens. Others maintain a good balance. These polar extremes can even be seen in individual monastics
    (Probably in all of us).

  4. Maria Wenzel Avatar
    Maria Wenzel

    This was very informative and educational, thank you.

  5. Michelle Avatar

    From DB Hart’s article, “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong:”

    “Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels.”

    Father, your blog post here seems to complement Hart’s proclamation. However, from a book I just began skimming through today called, “The Spiritual World in the letters of Paul the Apostle,” by Guy Williams, states basically that these “bad angels” are from the spiritual world common to St Paul’s presiding culture, both Jewish and pagan.

    These bad spirits are not the only ones who saturate Paul’s world, but are accompanied by an array of good spirits too. It is asserted that; “he [Paul] gives no good method for distinguishing the one Spirit from spirits in general. He was perfectly capable of producing a consistent linguistic distinction if he so chose, but he did not.” The author then goes on to say, “Paul made no effort to distinguishing between spirits from God and the Spirit of God.” And a little further on, “At times Paul allows that mutliple spirits come from God. He commands that the spirits of the prophets be subject to the prophets (1 Cor 14:32).”

    The author presents the spiritual world of Paul’s day and age as one of possession; good spirits possess people (apparently sent by God, and not always distinguished from His own Spirit) just as well as the bad ones, and they run the whole show alongside and in intimate connection to what we would call the “material” world (the author is quick to point out that the dualist distinction between the spiritual world and material world do not exist in ancient minds as they do in modern ones. Rather there is a wholeness to it all). And this was the undisputed, common worldview among the people of his time. Much like the worship of trees was common to your ancestors.

    So my question is this: Is Paul using this terminology within his Epistles in order the “Baptize” these spiritual ideas, much like the Church Baptized the trees your ancestors worshiped? Is he shedding light on misguided and false beliefs in order to bring them to fullness and truth?

    If Hart is right about he true focus of Paul’s Epistles being “about the overthrow of bad angels,” then is this overthrow best understood as a Baptism of a misguided and false spiritual world common in his day? Is the belief in “bad angels” misguided? Or does Paul speak in his Epistles about possessive good spirits and possesive bad ones because that is the actual and very real nature of his and our world? Because when you read his Epistles he comes off as truly believing in the spiritual world he describes within them. He comes off as actually believing in the spiritual ideas common to his era, presenting them to his readers with a distinct knowledge and authority given to him as an Apostle of the “good tidings” (as DB Hart puts it in his translation) entrusted to him by Christ. In fact, Paul states that everything he does (and therefore writes), he actually does IN CHRIST, meaning it is no longer himself who acts, but Christ who ‘posseses’ him and acts (like a good Spirit, who is not always distinguished from other good spirits that, likewise, posssess people).

    Lastly, I will say, it seems Paul believes in the overthrow of Archons in a way that is different than the overthrow of tree-worship. Christ’s Spirit, as One who possesses people, is presented by Paul in a way that fits perfectly with the common beliefs of his time. I dare say, this same description of Christ’s Spirit wouldn’t have fit so neatly with the tree-gods of your ancestors as it does with the Archons.

    And, in all honesty, Paul comes off as slightly gnostic in his belief in Archons. No wonder gnosticism became so popular. It seems a natural outgrowth from the Archon-filled Epistles of Paul.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the author you are citing (Williams) is incorrect. I do not think there is a confusion viz. spirits and Spirit. The “spirits” of the prophets, for example, is not about spirits inhabiting them, but about their “spirits,” which is often used interchangeably with “soul.” I’m not sure what the author’s agenda is – but this is off-base.

    I do not think St. Paul has in mind a particularly baptizing of cultures. Indeed, I would rather suggest that St. Paul’s world-view is not nearly so much a cultural artifact as it is a description of things as they are. He was familiar with a spiritual reality that transcended what we generally experience – that is to say – he knew what he was talking about.

    Hart is close on in his description, but his article is far too short. “Archons” (Ages) and the like (principalities, powers, etc.) are various forms of spiritual beings – though we shouldn’t necessarily equate them exactly with angels. It’s more complex than that. The gnostics use some of the same terms, but do not seem to have in mind the same things as described in St. Paul.

    It’s a very complex set of understandings – which makes it so easy for pseudo-scholars to manipulate for various agendas rather than trying to articulate what is, in fact, the case (with St. Paul, etc.). But I would agree with Hart, that what most people (i.e. our present Western understanding) see when they read St. Paul is, in fact, not what’s there. The Eastern Fathers understood it very well – which is why you almost never hear them wasting time going on and on about “justification” and the like. They never read Luther and so, did not mess up St. Paul.

    A useful little book, considered a classic by some, by a Lutheran scholar (yes, I know), Gustav Aulen, is, I think a very useful read. The book is Christus Victor. It describes 4 great views of the atonement. It’s a bit too reductionist – but paints things in a very clear picture – which makes it useful.

    What he describes as the “classical” view of the atonement – is the defeat of the hostile powers – and all that is associated with it (sin, death). It is the language of Pascha, the language of St. Sophronius’ Baptismal prayers (that we use) and of St. Basil’s Eucharistic anaphora. It is the language of many, many early Eastern fathers – and it is the language of St. Paul and the rest of the NT. My “theological” journey to Orthodoxy began, in many ways, with that book, though I didn’t know it at the time.

    One should read it, and then work at forgetting everything else you’ve ever read on the topic of the atonement – just use that single understanding as the lens for reading the NT and you’ll see that it is, in fact, what the NT and the early fathers are saying.

  7. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Gnosticism predates Christianity and tried to hijack the faith. Saint Paul used similar words because he was refuting them on their own turf. Irenaeus’ “Against Heresies” was written for the same reason and Saint Irenaeus uses similar language to attack their beliefs.

  8. Geri Priscilla Avatar
    Geri Priscilla

    Regarding all the “unnecessary” things… I am tempted to say that, really, the universe was “unnecessary,” but God in His exuberant creativity created all of it…all those unnecessary planets, stars, butterflies, flowers and even us. Then, in his fullness, He gave us the joy of all those “unnecessary” angels and saints, etc. Why would anyone want a “minimalist” God, or a minimalist salvation. Thanks be to God for the abundance of saint-friends, the joy of Baptism and Eucharist, candles that smell of bees, incense that smells of roses, and, last Saturday, the delight of blessed water cast on the faithful! How dull to want only the bare minimum of Life!

  9. JSP Avatar

    I love the symmetry (?) this article provides. The 1st Century Jews of Jesus’ crowd believed the sea to be Hell — the place of the dead, of chaos, etc. Your article affirms this. And it is why the Text shows us stories of demon-infected pigs running off a cliff into the Sea. It is why Jesus appearing on the water is an horrifying ghost to the disciples. Thanks, Father Stephen, for additional background which renders the Scripture into vivid technicolor.

  10. Bessarion Avatar

    Father, bless!

    “There simply is no “pristine” matter from which the faith starts fresh. ”

    Thank you so much for this. My journey with Orthodoxy has been bumping against this weird Protestant idea, the hunt for the ‘real’ original church. That means no icons as apparently they (as we understand and venerate them today) came in later centuries — though imagery has always been a part of the church. Where is the “pure” starting point?

    But (to say nothing of the Councils) why should Christ through the Church NOT redeem art as a tool for communion?

    I’ve felt this way about a lot of art that conservative Protestants reject, so it is a great relief to no longer feel like part of a strange minority. Thank you.

  11. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    As I read the lexicon for today this question came to mind. Does our Church in her services connect someway the Transfiguration with Theophany? At the Transfiguration we hear the voice of the Father and the Cloud (Shekina glory), instead of the dove, enveloping Christ and the two disciples. Seems a parallel in some ways.

  12. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you for your helpful response.

    I couldn’t tell you what the author’s angle is. It’s literally just a book I happened to stumble upon on the internet that looked promising for what I’ve been searching for. But maybe not, maybe it’s a dud.

    What I can tell is what I’ve been trying to get at. Originally what got me searching around the internet was Paul’s flesh and spirit language in his Epistles. I wanted to know how the ancient Gentiles and Jews of his day would have understood these terms. Because after attempting to divorce my mind from everything a modern Western, former Protestant person like myself has learned about flesh and spirit I’m at a total loss. My mind is blank to what Paul means by flesh, and even more so by spirit. So a searching I went…

    One helpful tidbit I came across (though I can’t remember exactly where I found it, and wouldn’t know a way of discerning for myself if the author is correct in his statement or not anyways) was that in ancient Judaism ideas such as carnal man, man of flesh, and spiritual man are not dualistic and opposing distinctions, as we moderns often like to describe them, but a continuum of the human state. This idea reminded me of your reference to being, well-being, and eternal-being, though I’m not sure if its actually related.

    But anyways, I had read all of Romans (and 1 Cor, and Galatians) in DB Hart’s translation, and while trying to discern Paul’s meaning I was struck by Hart’s decision not to capitalize the word “spirit,” nor use the definite article “the” in front of spirit in much of the usual places that other translations do. This made me very curious. Were Protestant translations purposely capitalizing and using “the” in places where it is not actually warranted, possibly to fulfill their own agenda?

    So, coming across this book of Guy Williams’ I thought maybe I had found a winner. He not only attempts to explain ancient Gentile and Jewish thought as the background for Paul’s preoccupation with the invisible spirit-world, and comes basically to the same conclusions as DB Hart concerning the overthrow of the Archons, but he even gives a compelling argument from the ancient understanding of Paul’s time as to why capitalization and definite articles for the word ‘spirit’ are, in fact, not actually warranted. Whether or not this guy is legit, I don’t know. But what little I read was quite interesting. If you want to get a better idea of this guy’s thinking on the topic go to ‘google.books.com’ and read through chapter 2, “The Spirit and the Spirit World,” staring on pg. 19, https://books.google.com/books?id=zh00-K40hT8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    And if anyone has any good references on ancient Judaic thought concerning the spiritual world that might shed some light on Paul’s flesh and spirit terminology feel free to share (or any other terminology for that matter). 🙂

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I hope I didn’t go too far in my response. Part of the problem in reading Greek is its use of (or absence of) the definite article (where we use “the”). It’s not really the case that saying, “spirit” rather than “the Spirit” is a huge distinction – that is – that everytime you see the definite article it is the Holy Spirit, and everywhere it’s not is something else.

    Context is, indeed, important and inescapable. That is why the Tradition (in the East) is important, I think. I like especially reading in the early fathers (no later than Maximus, but mostly pre-Nicene) for context.

    The battle with the powers is exceedingly important and the author is correct that it is overlooked. The Reformation so colored St. Paul that few can read him well at all.

    I also suspect St. Paul is dependent on the Hebrew when he speaks of “flesh” and “spirit.” “Basar” is the Hebrew – it’s an interesting term in itself. Think of “all flesh shall see it together.” It can be a simple collective term for “all created beings on earth.” I tend to read it like a “principle,” i.e. human beings when considered in terms only of their creaturely existence without reference to God. Indeed, it could almost be translated as “secular man”. Hmmm.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. The Transfiguration is a “Theophany,” an event that reveals God as Trinity.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A book worth looking at viz. the powers is Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers. As successive volumes of this came out, I thought it got a bit strange, but I remember this volume as very much worth the read.

  16. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    Wow. Thank you, Father. The more I read, the more I understand how very little I know.

  17. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    Geri Priscilla – Thank you for sharing your joy!

  18. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you again, Father. I know nothing about Hebrew and was unaware of the term Basra. Very interesting.

    And thanks for the reference. I’ll definitely get it and check it out. Seems like just the kind of stuff I’ve been looking for!

  19. Paula Avatar

    Father Bless!
    I think my focus has been too wide in trying to coalesce the significance of water in Scripture with the blessing of the waters and the Baptism of Jesus.
    The point you make about Genesis 1:2 as an “echo” of creation stories in ancient cultures is a good point and it is something that I did not consider. As I now understand it, the primary reason for Israel (and every culture) to hear the words of Genesis 1:2 is that it points to Israel’s God as the one true God, Creator of all things ex-nihilo, as opposed to the pagan creator gods who are themselves the waters, the sun, the moon, etc.
    Your explanation of the destruction of the demons of “the deep” and the defeat of the “watery chaos” by Christ’s decent into Hades, citing the Baptismal Psalms, Isaiah, and Ezekiel helps a great deal as well. I have a tendency to veer off track and misconstrue the meaning of blessed waters, fighting the thought of them as having an inherent power in and of themselves (a pagan thought indeed!).
    So, thank you Father! Very helpful!

  20. Dean Avatar

    How freeing it was for me to see the material world in a positive light in Orthodoxy. Every sacrament we have involves the material in some aspect, water, oil, wine. bread, etc. Of course the Holy Spirit infuses them with His life giving energies/grace. How wondrous our salvation! God become man, redeeming flesh with His own flesh, redeeming all we are, the whole person. Was it Geri above who wrote of how joyful are our feasts? Oh yes! Just a little more. All of our being is also involved in worship. We do not sit passively in a sterile gym-type auditorium. Beauty surrounds us as it will in heaven.

  21. Suzie Avatar

    Fr. Bless,
    In my mind, some elements of worship seen in other religions, that are similar to Judeo-Christian worship, are because of God’s relationship with mankind from the beginning. I see the Holy Trinity as the Source, the first. All other beliefs come from that source as an aberration. As people spread out they all had a piece of the original Truth of the One God that morphed. I do not know if the Tower of Babel is taken as a literal event or not in Orthodoxy, but that would a point of dispersal that could lead to the falling away of the full knowledge. Their practices morphed into worshipping the creation instead of the creator, or gods that had human character, etc. The Yazidis for instance, who have a piece of the story, but believe that God created, then left his creation to the care of the peacock angel. Some religions hold some of the same values of the One God. It always flabbergasts me when groups claim that Judeo-Christian belief took all the stories from elsewhere. I saw a guy in a store who had a shirt on saying something like, “Silly Christians, Pagans were first.” and then an exhaustive list of points. While the Faith did take on the name of Christ later, the faith in the One God existed first. It is all very fascinating. When reading about Orthodoxy coming to Alaska, thankfully, the monks got to know the indigenous peoples first as people they became friends with and loved. When the locals asked the monks about their beliefs they affirmed the things they believed that Orthodox did too, then explained what they believed. All truth is Orthodox truth. And then when those peoples came to believe in the One God, it was a fulfillment belief. A wonderful approach indeed.

  22. Suzie Avatar


    All I can say is AMEN, AMEN, AMEN to that.

  23. Paula Avatar

    Dean…I too say Amen!
    Although I do not have the mileage that you do in Orthodoxy, so far my experience of Orthodoxy and Her sacramental life…if not most of the time only just an awareness of it, is like seeing the dawn of a brand new day. You can remember, as you alluded to, when you did not comprehend the world/creation as sacrament nor even know what that meant. I am in it’s beginnings (coming to the faith late in life) and do not have the mileage, but am convinced that it is the very thread of Life … Christ’s ultimate gift to us and all creation. I am the midst of unlearning, adjusting, and now relearning the truths of the Faith, there are times (many!) when I know I am “missing something”! What I am most concerned about though is ignorance in not knowing what I am missing!! The “missing something” is what I was referring to in trying to comprehend the blessing of the waters, etc. I have a terrible habit of thinking in concrete terms…and it takes a while for these “non-western” concepts to “gel”, but once I get it, I “get it”….and I have to believe I’m getting there!
    Your words are encouraging Dean and give me incentive to never despair! Thanks!

  24. Dean Avatar

    Suzie and Paula,
    Thank you too (two) for your kind words. There is so much in Orthodoxy of which I also am ignorant. For myself the focus in my life has to be prayer…I know this and pray too little. If we are truly seeking, hungering, then God leads us forward at His pace and timing. I’ll die spiritually ignorant of so very much. ..now in my 70’s. However, if we do really thirst after Christ then we can be certain that His leading in our life is perfect, though we often fail. I constantly take refuge in the refrain, “Lover of mankind”…of course here with all our sisters in the faith. Ignorance is not bliss but Christ and His Church, the Panagia and all the saints are.

  25. Karen Avatar

    Regarding the question of the compatibility of the Genesis accounts and modern science of origins, have you ever read or listened to any of Hugh Ross’s work (Evangelical founder of the organization, Reasons to Believe)? He has a very interesting testimony and shows how what we actually know from science keeps validating the biblical creation accounts and anthropology and throwing evolutionary theory about human origins into chaos. He is an old earth creationist and became one (and also a believer) through his study of astrophysics. He has quite a few talks and debates (with atheists and young earth creationists) posted on YouTube. Probably all also at his website.

  26. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I haven’t read Dr Ross’s work, rather, I just did a quick Wikipedia search. The entry in Wikipedia leads me to think that he is not antagonistic to evolutionary theory, but proposes that evolution and abiogenesis is ‘guided’ by God.

    Beyond that, his approach to reading/studying the Bible doesn’t seem to resemble an Orthodox approach to me, which is a conclusion I arrived at by only briefly reading some introductory material on his website. This doesn’t mean to me that there might not be merit in his work, or some points that might be helpful, it’s just that when he builds corollaries between the Bible and science, I wonder whether such relationships he draws might not be helpful for living in Christ as is taught in the Orthodox Tradition.

    For example, does he mention anything about mystery, in the ‘natural’ world or in science?

    I am curious to hear what Father Stephen says, also. But I’m not sure this is on track with this article, unless he (Fr Stephen) wants to address chaos theory.

    And it is interesting that there are patterns seen even in ‘chaotic’ systems, that can be seen as quite beautiful. But again, I don’t think this is the same ‘chaos’ Father Stephen is writing about.

    But I’m here to learn.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Karen, rather than drag this thread into evolution, look at the root of the word chaos. It can be a way of describing the nothing before the Word brought this into existence.

    Long ago Johnny Carson had a cosmologist on his program who had been a Jesuit priest. The cosmologist looked a bit monkish. Way beyond Johnny but quiet memorable to me. The man, talking about the beginning, questioned the singularity hypothesis of the Big Bang, he said that before there was stuff, there was the undivided and the infinite–God.

    “Without form and void…” is difficult for my poor imagination to comprehend. How can I understand nothing? No thing.

    Thinking of chaos as disorder still posits “things” and how they interrelate does it not? Even math requires things. Numbers and differentiation are about ordering things even the highest levels of math.

    Every origin story I have read or read about assumes some level of thingness at the beginning. Even Genesis can be read that way.

    The different types of evolution, all of them that I am aware of, have similar assumptions.

    However, Traditional Christianity teaches creation Ex Nihilo. If God created things out of nothing there was instant separation as some Fathers teach. However He intends for the separated to become unified with Him while still retaining their thingness. That seems to require a Transfiguration of things not growth or adaptation.

    That is an entirely different paradigm and telos than evolution of any type considers. So different as to make evolution irrelevant IMO. All evolution is about progress or dissolution not Transfiguration. As Father Stephen says God did not come to make bad men good but dead men alive. One does not evolve from death into life. Lazurus did not evolve from his tomb where all thought he lay inert and stinking. He was brought forth.
    God Himself ressurected, by His own will.

  28. Karen Avatar

    Oops! I see I created confusion by employing the word chaos(which Dr. Ross employed in a completely different context). The chaos Dr. Ross mentioned has nothing to do with that in this post. My question was not at all to challenge anything Fr. Stephen was saying, but was strictly tangential. Just as Fr. Stephen has a particular burden to reach those who turn away from Christ because of overly literalist and legalistic or moralistic interpretations of Christian faith, Dr. Ross has a burden to reach those who believe (because of young earth creationism) that sound scientific discovery cannot be reconciled with faith in the biblical God. His testimony was quite interesting and inspiring to me and even seems to parallel in some respects Dee’s I believe.

    Yes, in that his faith is Evangelical it will lack the depth of Orthodoxy, but as approaches to the biblical record and the discoveries of modern science go, I found him to be very respectful of both, well informed in the latter, and deliberately irenic and instructional in his approach, not polemical as is so much around this topic out there. I was favorably impressed, so just wondered if Fr. Stephen had any exposure. That’s all.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, Karen,
    Indeed, I would prefer that we not get drawn into the evolution debate. Genesis can (and should) be seen from a number of angles. The text, in its original context, would not have intended a creation ex nihilo. It is, instead, a theological correction of the Mesopotamian cultural consensus, that rightly asserts the Lordship of God over all things. But in the reading of the Fathers, Michael is right, “without form and void” is treated as nothingness. In an odd way, “nothing” is the ultimate chaos.

    I think of this in the other direction sometimes. The “nothing” that threatens me now (with its chaos), is the nothing of non-being, meaninglessness, etc. This is sin and death. It is not a “state” of things that threatens us, but a direction and movement. To move towards non-being is the very rejection of the gift of God and the very heart of sin.

    On some level, our death looms as a threat of “non-being.” We cannot see beyond our death. We can believe and we can trust. We can even reason on the basis of Christ’s resurrection and His promise. But, still, we cannot see. The Sedalen in the Burial Office says:

    Truly all things are vanity. Life is but a shadow and a dream. For in vain does everyone born on earth trouble himself, as the Scriptures say. When we have gained the world, we take up our abode in the grave, where kings and beggars lie down together.

    St. Athanasius grounds the doctrine of the Incarnation and our salvation on the creation ex nihilo. It is why, I think, it is always correct for theology to be “ontological” in character. Being and Non-Being are primary categories for Orthodox thought.

    I think that it is there, on the question of being and non-being, that we can have a fruitful conversation with science. It is more metaphysics than physics. But as my old physics professor used to say (he was an Oak Ridge scientist), “The further you go in physics, the more theological the questions become.” Our conversation with science becomes extremely unfruitful when we begin to discuss mechanics. Whatever “mechanical” involvement God has with creation, it is hidden. He sustains us in our being at every moment – but this fact remains hidden unless it is sought.

  30. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    One thing we must remember is that the pagan doctrine of chaos posits the eternal existence of matter and that even the gods are made from this chaos. This is diametrically opposed to the Judaeo-Christian view of creation. The very first sentence of Genesis is the demarcation line between pagan creation myths and the Creation story of Genesis. In our world view God, who is pure spirit and not matter at all, created all things in Heaven and on Earth. Our understanding is that this creation is out of nothing, ex nihilo. The void and lack of form in our view is after the beginning of creation and not before. To really grasp the total separation between our beliefs and all the pagan myths I recommend “The Bible among the Myths” by Dr John N. Oswalt. It is a text written out of his class notes (a class I took from him in Seminary) and if you can wade through the technical philosophic reasoning, he clearly demonstrates that our beliefs are not only different than paganism but they came out of no worldly source and quite suddenly. Revelation can be the only answer to how this happened. It happened in encounter with the Living God and it set the Hebrews apart from the world.
    As one learns about the differences in concepts and thought patterns of pagan beliefs and the Judaeo-Christian world view it becomes readily apparent that paganism only slightly resembles our beliefs and the similarities are not based on common belief, but are accidental in nature. We have a flood story as do they but when one examines the details they are totally different in concept. In most such pagan myths the events take place outside space and time whereas in Genesis, the flood takes place on Earth in time.
    To be fair, you will hear things from TV preachers that masquerade as Christian ideas but they are utterly pagan.
    Paganism has Sympathetic Magic as a fundamental principle. The purpose of pagan worship and religious acts is to control and influence the gods. This is based on the Principle of Continuity (which is activated by Sympathetic Magic) in which our actions on Earth have effects in the heavens. We can force the gods to do our will by implementing an action that puts pressure on them. If that does not work we can appeal to the Meta Divine which is power that is above the gods and has influence over Chaos. You will hear this preached as one of the Seven Spiritual Laws that even God must obey. It is called in TV land the Law of Sowing and Reaping. This is utterly pagan thought and not Christian at all.
    Remember also that the Psalmist says “all the gods of the Nations are demons….” Because demons are liars and manipulators that tell only half truths at best, we can expect that they would deceive the pagans by only given them enough truth to sound like truth, but really tell a bald lie.
    Many make arguments that the Hebrews must have believed in Tiamut/Leviathan, because their names appear in Scripture. Likewise we have the idea of Christ descending into the waters to crush the heads of the dragons (demons) that live there. ) I am not so sure that Scripture is not mocking the pagan beliefs (after all “who put the hook in Leviathan’s nose?”) and Christ is demonstrating His power over demons and pagan ideas by entering into the waters and dispelling any ideas of it being Chaos. Remember the story of the demoniac in Mark Chapter 5, the demons could not even haunt pigs without His consent. This seems a continuation of the idea of cleansing of the waters. Christ is Pantakrator, Ruler of All. All things owe their existence to Him and if He forgets them, they are not. Lord, Remember me in Your Kingdom.

  31. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I totally get the mechanics part and agree. As I said, that really wasn’t where I was intending to head with my question, and I wish I had emailed it instead because I love this post and didn’t intend to detract from it. I liked the way Dr. Ross handled the topic as far as I could follow what he was doing. It seems like he is to scientific skepticism what Gary Habernaus (sp?) is to philosophical skepticism, and I see a usefulness in that. I liked listening to him in the same way I like watching Nova or reading C.S Lewis. 🙂

  32. Maria Wenzel Avatar
    Maria Wenzel

    I was watching Nova the Black Hole Theory last night and found it amazing that the stars, quasars and galaxies etc. actually create the Black Hole and that in every Galaxy that exists a Black Hole is in the Center of it and co-exists, yes even in our Galaxy. I am no Scientist and my vocabulary is limited, but I could not help seeing what is and what no longer shall be ….at some point. Being and None-Being if you will. The concept is so big that the journey and chaos of this life (or sin and death if you will) is just a starting point in this discovery. I seat my emotions at the foot and grandeur of all Creation, and it is truly amazing what a small role we all have in it. Our struggles here on earth turns into vapors in comparison to the struggles of every thing that exists. Nevertheless….struggle we all must. Reaching for the Stars is another form of reaching out to God and asking the question…..Who and what am I? I embrace Science, but never losing sight of the one who wishes me to seek. AND HE IS IN ALL OF US. Seek and you will find, knock and I will come in and fellowship etc.. It is giving our relationships form here on earth, creating order out of chaos. It was only a beginning, the first born. (a small side trip: There are interesting articles out in biology that changes the way we view ourselves too, specially woman. Amazing studies.)
    Microchimerism: how pregnancy changes the mother’s very DNA – Katherine Rowland | Aeon Essays.

  33. M E Emberson Avatar
    M E Emberson

    Thank you Father Stephen for the interesting post! If I may, I could point to the idea of water covering the earth . To the people of the Nile Delta where inundations renew the soil yearly ( I think) and to the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates floods have been terrible events with water covering the land which people lived on.
    Deltas are built up by floods but are good places for agriculture Other rivers flood badly when there is runoff from mountains where there has been heavy snow. Tribes which relied on grazing sheep/goats cattle would be equally affected by extensive flooding and the destruction of pasture. So I think waters covering the earth from horizon to horizon would be a good description for a memorable flood and be talked about for years.
    ( Christmas Trees were church decorations with apples originally in German lands, I heard once. Representing paradise)

  34. Paula Avatar

    Maria Wenzel,
    I hesitated to respond to your above post because I simply did not know how to express my thoughts concisely. I am going to attempt to do so now, so please bear with me.
    First, I agree with your wonder about God’s universe and the discovery of Black Holes. It is no surprise that they are a mystery. I can understand how you see our role comparatively small when considering in quantity the organic life of the entire universe. However, when I consider, not quantity, but quality , I see what Christ has done for mankind in His incarnation, death and resurrection for us to be the Church, Heaven on Earth. We are His Body, His witness, and this is no small role. So there are two sides of the equation…the One and the Many. And the very concept of suffering and death (looking into the Black Hole?) is misunderstood by the world, for it is by that very means we enter into Life. So as you say, “suffer we must”…yes indeed, if one is to experience True Life.

    On a different note, but indirectly significant, and the very thing that actually caught my attention in the first place, is your comment and reference to the article on microchimerism. Lord have Mercy! First, I truly hope you consider the reasoning behind John Dunn’s question to Father Stephen so appropriately posted at Father’s article on Ontology. (John Dunn, if I am incorrect in assuming that Maria’s post led to your question, please let us know.) I believe John’s reasoning is in part related to the disastrous outcome of our secular culture. Let me explain:
    My initial question was why did the scientists invent this word “microchimerism” to describe “fetal origin cells” in the mother’s body? They even unabashedly state the definition of chimera: “the Greek fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent.”
    They go on to say:
    “…findings gesture toward…questions about what it means for one individual to play host to the cellular material of another, prompting scientists to look into whether this phenomenon affects physical health or influences behaviour, or even carries metaphysical consequences [only metaphysical consequences? there is nothing abstract about ontological existence in Christ. Circulating fetal cells were part of the Theotokos…a Woman “really” set apart and sanctified by God, in Christ.] The Western self is a bounded, autonomous entity, defined in no small part by its presumed distinction from the other [the secular mindset as “individuals”]. But this unfolding field of research…suggests that we humans are not oppositional but constituent beings, made of many. [Better, we are many in One!]… referencing the poet Walt Whitman’s multitudes, says we need a ‘new paradigm of the biological self’. [No! we don’t need a new paradigm, we need to recognize the original, True one! the Archetype!]

    Here they admit to the paradox of the offering of life and risking death in pregnancy:
    ” [for]Western women well into the 20th century, pregnancy was commonly depicted as the ultimate form of cooperation [now culturally uncommon!] – mothers sharing their bodies to the point of sacrifice for the sake of kin and species….This vision utterly obscures the fraught evolutionary journey that delivers the babe in arms, and the screaming, nerve-jangled moments that surround it. Increasingly, pregnancy has come under scrutiny for its profound paradoxes. It is at once essential and unrivalled in its perils [unrivalled?]. As it engenders life, it also results in staggeringly high rates of death and disease. Scientists are starting to look to microchimerism for clues as to why pregnancy is both life-giving and a singular source of risk.”
    What they define as paradox, we as Christians know as the giving of oneself, even to death for the sake of Life (is this not what mothers do?)….as Christ has done for the life of the world.
    I don’t want to further pick apart this article…my response is already lengthy enough. I will say though, I get the distinct impression of a secular, strictly biological worldview in their theory and therefore in their conclusions. I do not detect a value of life as God has given us, even in the miracle of birth. The “inconveniences” are chalked up to “microchimerism” rather than the giving of oneself for the sake of the other.
    What a very strange word!
    The very chaos that is present in this world is the philosophy of secularism/modernism. But Christ, Glory to God, has given us victory!

  35. Chris Avatar

    Fr. Stephen et al.,
    In several icons of Theophany that I’ve seen, there are two sea creatures lurking in the waters near the feet of Christ. Are these suppose to depict the Leviathan, Tiamat, or other monsters of the water?

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t know.

  37. Jesse Avatar


    At the bottom of most Theophany icons, there are two figures riding fish (or waves or other sea creatures) and turning away or fleeing from Jesus Christ as He enters the water. These two figures represent all the powers of the deep as they were subdued by Jesus Christ when he entered into the Jordan river. Specifically, the two figures are personifications of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. These two bodies of water are connected together by the Biblical story of Israel fleeing from Egypt and being rescued by God as they crossed the Red Sea at the start of their journey and the Jordan River at the end. We see this idea of God subduing these bodies of water within Psalm 114:5, where the singer writes: “What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?”

  38. Chris Avatar

    Thanks, Jesse. That’s helpful.

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