Obstacles to Faith in the Modern World


My writing and thoughts often carry me to the “edges” – to the edge of unbelief and to the edge of the depths of belief. My instinct for these places is an instinct for the obstacles to faith. Why do some believe and others not? And what is the exact nature of belief and unbelief?

There is a form of belief familiar to everyone. It is simply the manner in which we see the world. We are not particularly aware of any effort required in this exercise. We open our eyes, look, and see what we see. This perception, however, can also be clouded by many things. For some, every simple perception of the world comes colored with a mist of fear and anxiety. Things are not only what they are seen to be, but are also seen to be threats. If you have never had this experience you are blessed.

I recall my first experience of a major city – New York in 1971. I was working as a street musician along with a friend. The city was amazing – a constant feast for the eyes and senses. I had seen nothing like it. A week or so after arriving, we were mugged at knife point. What we lost financially was insignificant. What I lost was the city I had first encountered. In its place was a hostile, dangerous environment in which every face was a potential enemy, every alley way a hiding place for the next disaster. We went home.

Of course this “perception” of the world is simply the fog of psychology. But it is worth remembering how important that fog can be in how we see.

There is a way of seeing that many would describe as “seeing things as they are.” We assume that how we see things is objective, real, accurate, normal, etc. All of these take for granted an agreement concerning our perceptions. It would also be readily accepted that inner dispositions and culturally agreed ideas might distort these perceptions. The racially-divided society of my Southern childhood contained a large array of false but generally accepted (by whites) distortions of the world. Those who began speaking about equality in the 1960’s sounded, at first, like people from another planet. It is little wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr., described his vision of a world in which race was not issue in terms of a “promised land.”

These questions of perception are crucial to an understanding of faith and overcoming obstacles. Faith is a means of perception. It is an “organ” of seeing and hearing. It is the “evidence of things not seen,” or, “the seeing of unseeable things.” “To see the unseeable” is of a piece with “to know the Unknowable.” The things of God are not obvious or clear to a darkened heart.

Our modern version of things “as they are,” is simply things understood in a “secular” manner. For the most obvious thing to modern man is that his world is a great neutral zone. God (if there is a God) can choose to make Himself present in the world, but there is nothing about the world that is inherently connected to God. The world is just the world. He lives in a fog of unbelief. Many times I have heard non-believers (or various kinds of believers) express their desire for God to reveal Himself in a clear and unmistakable manner – an angel would do nicely.

With such an assumption underlying everything that appears, it is little wonder that the vision given by faith is a stumbling block. To perceive the world as sacrament and wonder contradicts our culture’s commonly held view. Everything “is what it is,” and asserting anything else about it is seen as metaphor, allegory, symbolism or “mysticism.”

When someone says that they “believe” in God, I’m not always sure what they mean. It is entirely possible (and even often the case) that they mean something quite different than what I would mean by the same statement. There is the acceptance of God as a theoretical construct, a mental assent, even a trusting mental assent to the existence of a higher being who loves, creates and provides for creation. That trusting assent may have a significant amount of content: the “God of the Bible,” or the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. In many cases (even most), however, trusting assent to the existence of such a God does not alter the shape or nature of creation itself: it remains the same neutral, secular world. This is the situation I have described as a “two-storey universe.”

There are many versions of such a God – from the so-called literalist version of the fundamentalists, to the gentle, politically-correct God of modern liberalism. Some struggle with the name of this God, wondering whether “He” should be replaced by “He/She” or other English neologisms (in one graduate school I attended, certain professors would only accept papers written in conformity with a neologistic orthodoxy – and that was over 30 years ago).

But the content of the “superior being” in the two-storey universe is relatively beside the point. Such a God, regardless of content, is not the God and Father of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ: it is a lightly Christianized version of the ancient sky gods. And in the cultural perception of  modern, secularized nature, it is an endangered species. Few attacks on the Christian faith sound as silly as those of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Their inaccuracies and caricatures are rivaled only by the rants of the adherents whose god they despise.

But Christians would do well to listen to their critique – for the god they don’t believe in was taught them by someone or the culture at large. To say, “I believe in the god described by Dawkins, only my reasons are very good,” is actually inadequate. What Dawkins, Hitchens and company reveal is an obstacle to faith. If the universe itself is the one they perceive – if it is truly inert, self-existing, self-referential and spiritually neutral, then the case against the God taught and made known in Jesus Christ is strong indeed. Positing a sky-god above and outside such a world is perhaps interesting, but it is not persuasive and, more to the point, not Christianity. David Bentley Hart has this to say about the Christian God:

To speak of “God” properly—in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth— is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.

God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.

To speak of “gods,” by contrast, is to speak only of a higher or more powerful or more splendid dimension of immanent reality. Any gods who might be out there do not transcend nature but belong to it. Their theogonies can be recounted— how they arose out of the primal night, or were born of other, more titanic progenitors, and so on —and in many cases their eventual demises foreseen. Each of them is a distinct being rather than “being itself,” and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one—not merely singular or unique—but is oneness as such, the sole act of being by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together.  From “God, Gods and Fairies,” First Things, June/July 2013

The God described by the Fathers is “Beyond all being.” He is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same.” How do we perceive such a God?

The first and most important answer for Christians is that Jesus Christ is none other than the Word of the Father, the Logos of the Ground of Being, and that He has become man. In the words of St. John’s Gospel: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (literally, “He has exegeted Him”). 

As Fr. Thomas Hopko has said on numerous occasions: “You cannot know God…but you have to know Him to know that.”

This utterly transcendent, yet truly incarnate God, also makes Himself known in the primary means of the sacraments and the life of the “community of union” (to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus). The God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known can only be known because He reveals Himself – He makes Himself known. He is not an object among objects, nor is He an idea among ideas.

The sacramental life should not be seen as discrete moments of grace dispensed by the Church, but rather as revelations of Divine Reality, gifts of the very Life of God, given to us in the means He has appointed. And the means is not arbitrary – it is itself revelatory of the relationship between the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known and His creation. What we perceive by faith in the Eucharist is also a revelation about bread – all bread. For the incarnate Christ is the Lord of creation who is gathering all things into Himself.

The highly psychologized notion of “relationship” touted within much of modern Christianity is a deviation from what is established within the Scriptures and the historical life of the community of faith. It is a novelty – all too well-suited to an overly psychologized culture. In a world driven by the warring identities of 6 billion false-selves, one more relationship is simply not salvific. The false self does not have authentic relationship.

It should be obvious that we cannot perceive the true God in the manner of perception that dominates our cultural life. Faith is a means of perception that requires a change in the agent of perception. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The beginning of faith is a movement (which is always inherently a change) both away from our present perception and towards the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. It is always a movement towards authentic being.

This movement towards God is initiated in us by grace, by the power of God that draws us, that encourages us, that nurtures our longing for true existence. Dimitru Staniloae describes our response:

At the beginning this is only the simple will to believe and not to do something. So inevitably the first effort of our will in view of the good, can have only this object: to believe. As far as we are concerned, we can’t begin anywhere else, by some change for the good in our life, except to believe. And the one who wants to believe, arrives at the point where he can….

So before starting out on the.way of purification, it is necessary for man to strengthen his faith received at Baptism, by will, but since faith is a relationship of mind to God, it can’t be strengthened except by my beginning to think more often of Him, not in a theoretical way, as of a philosophical subject for study, but of Him on whom I depend for everything and Who can help me in my insufficiencies. But the thought of God is made real, or maintained by a short and frequent remembrance of Him, made with piety, with the feeling that we depend on Him. Such a thought concentrates our thoughts on God or on Jesus Christ, on what He has done for us, as the basis for the trust that He will help us now too (in Orthodox Spirituality, Kindle 2228-2233).

This brings us back to the edges – where this article began. Although God is truly the Ground of Being, the only foundation of existence, our habit of perception acts as an obstacle for true perception. Our sight has to be drawn to the edges (even those immediately before us) where we see hints, even hints of hints, that there is a Reality that lies outside, within and beneath all that we see. That smallest perception sometimes comes with its own attendant joy, for it is Joy itself and Wonder. It is communion and union. It is purity of heart and love.

I was recently struck by this statement of the Elder Tadej of Serbia:

There are some that say that they are atheists, but there is no such thing as an atheist…. No such thing. Even the devil believes and trembles (cf. James 2:19), but he refuses to do good. There is no such thing as a person who does not believe in God, and there is no rational being on earth that does not long after life with all his heart. We will give anything to live eternally, and we all long after perfect love, love that never changes but lasts forever. God is life, He is love, peace, and joy. There are those who oppose Him, but they can do nothing to hurt Him. It is we who complicate our own lives with our negative thoughts  (Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, 1626-1630 Kindle Edition).


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.



48 responses to “Obstacles to Faith in the Modern World”

  1. Andrew Teal Avatar

    Thank you. Isn’t it stunning that in all His Mystery in Christ means the glorious promise (so articulated by Sophrony of Essex) we will see Him as He is. Happy Easter, Father, Christ is truly risen!!

  2. Eliot Rausch Avatar

    Thank You kindly father, after strong ego-ic collapses in my own life, after long dark nights, on the other side, I have experienced this God. A feeling of one-ness with all things, total liberation and freedom, a feeling that I no longer exist but I am somehow part of God and all of reality. To hard to concretize with language, it would be foolish. I often wish I could go back to this state of being, but have been told not to hang my hat on it. It reminds me of what Elder Porphyrios experienced as a young man. My question here is how do we live in this state of awareness, this surrender, while also discerning evil, how can I abandon to this perception while also discerning. I find when I am in my head about what is of God and what is not of God, the ego-ic separation begins, and I can spend long seasons, years, in a state of judgment without love and ultimately without God.

  3. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father, there is much t consider in this post.

  4. Karen Avatar

    Father, bless!

    Goodness! You have outdone yourself here. Or, rather, the Lord has spoken through you a clear and much needed word to those of us given grace to hear.

    In the context, the Elder’s quote with which you end is quite true and appropriate, but seems to me to beg (for the benefit of some readers not well grounded in Orthodox faith) a follow up to further distinguish it from the teaching of the (counterfeit) occult. Spiritual counterfeits take constant and shape-shifting forms outside the revelation given us in Jesus Christ, ever masquerading as *the* Truth in full while presenting a fatal Lie cleverly hidden in a confused tangle of partial truths: Eastern religion, esoteric philosophies/Theosophy/New Thought/New Age, or popularized in “sectarian Christian” forms such as “Christian Science”, Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking”, Schuller’s “Hour of Power,” “Word of Faith” heresy and all the seemingly infinite permutations of such!

    I’m reading this quote through the eyes of many of my non-Orthodox relatives and friends, and doubt many of them will be capable of seeing this quote as anything but a blessing on the fallen occult understanding they already have without further elucidation and their acceptance of the fundamental reality of the Uncreated/created distinction. “God is God, and I am not Him.”

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your caveat is well-made. It might well be worth an expansion sometime soon. I think I would say to someone that positive thoughts do not make anything happen (we have no such power). But negative thoughts often become self-fulfilling prophecies. That’s how I read the Elder Thaddeus.

  6. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Yes, quite so. Good one-sentence summary of the reality.

    We either begin gradually to learn bit-by-bit to think the Lord’s thoughts after Him and then find larger and larger vistas of Reality opening (also bit by bit otherwise our spiritual “eyes” would not be able to adjust to the Truth’s brilliance and we would be crippled by blindness as was Saul), or we think the enemy’s counterfeit thoughts (often deceptively “positive”) after that angel of “light” (which is in reality darkness disguised) and are led captive into death, all the while believing we have stumbled upon what only an elite few perhaps can see—until it’s too late (or would be were it not for the Lord’s unending mercy).

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    There are several pearls here that I’m grateful you’ve strung together. Your words have helped me to articulate a few concerns I have had in my participation in this blog:

    I want to emphasize that what my life is now, is of ‘no count’ to the culture at large. If one is to make a list of needful work/people in this culture, what I do and who I am will not register particularly high, if at all. And not only am I “ok” with that, but I thank God for my current circumstances every day.

    One thing that seems to plague my comments is the fact that I frequently reference a specific subject in physics, which I came to ‘post career’ (I’m not ‘retired’). I had had extensive training in the area of physical chemistry, which allowed for that ‘access’. By quirk (not of “giftedness” or “high intelligence”, or “special grace”) of my life history, my brain is often “there” even if my body is no longer operating in lab or in an institution. This current life allows for some (but not a lot) of time to delve into areas that had my attention while I was in “career mode” but couldn’t delve for lack of time. “Delving” means going straight into data that comes straight out of the research groups that are actually doing the work I’m interested in and frequently reference. Simply put, that means I don’t read anybody else’s (philosophical and/or political) “digests” of that material, only the actual original reports of the data.

    This society at large claims to have prestige for someone who does what I used to do. But I’m not so sure about that. Although I frequently hear the phrase, “researchers say…” as if what comes next in the sentence has some merit, with the frequency I hear the phrase, what usually comes next is rarely “real science”. And if I would dare to point out to the speaker that what was said ‘was not science’, at the very least I would receive significant ‘blow back’. Typically the “blow back” would not be “science” either but an emotional response to what would be considered an insult. Such interactions generally are not helpful, so as a general rule, I avoid them.

    Now I come to the point of writing this comment. The ‘problem’ (if it should be called that) for me as a Christian, is that the Lord found me while I was studying physics data. And by finding me, I don’t mean to say I was asking God to “prove himself” to me, to prove He existed, through science. Far from that actually. I lived life as a believer of God, not as a Christian, but I suppose by some paradox, as a scientist who had an upbringing in the cultural ethos of the Seminole people in Florida. “Data” was my “religion” and my “bread”. I sought God in every “bite”. And I loved God. If I had had an understanding of Eucharist, then, I would have pointed to a ‘bunch of equations’ and said, here is my ‘Eucharist’. Only the truth is I didn’t have such an understanding of Eucharist at that time of my life, there was only ‘the data’ and my pursuit of God in all the facets of my life.

    If you meet me in my parish hall after Liturgy, chances are very high that I *don’t* bring up physical chemistry or physics data. But if while having coffee with me, you might ask me, “So you are a convert? How did you come into Orthodoxy?” Then I might start to bend your ear about physics and leave you scratching your head. I’ve learned not to talk about my conversion unless someone really, really wants to know and they already know that I’m going to bend their ear about the science context of my conversion.

    (Aside: My beloved husband of 30 years has long grown accustomed to my ‘quirks’. He knows that I love him but he has had to accept that he loves a woman who spends a lot of time in some sort of “zone” in which if he asks ‘where I am’ I end up telling him stuff, which after a few moments, he says “ok I’ve heard enough”.)

    Fr Stephen, I’m ever grateful you have described what it is like to be on the “edge of belief”. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, you have eloquently, “nailed it”. Conversion is a lengthy process, and there was a time initially that I was prepared to ‘push away’ what I was about to receive from Christ. Science itself wasn’t the reason for the ‘push away’ but fear of the Unknown. It was actually my long experience in science that enabled me to ‘stare down’ the fear in my heart and face the Unknown, with some semblance of confidence that I wasn’t trying to ‘fool myself’ into thinking that what I saw was real.

  8. David Avatar

    I agree. If a person is uncomfortable with uncertainty, they don’t belong in science. There aren’t enough facts in the world to awaken the eyes of the heart. That’s the work of the Spirit.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect that many of the very best scientists work “on the edge,” that is, their thoughts and images and perceptions push the boundaries. My physics prof in college (who had been a scientist here in Oak Ridge – nuclear and particle stuff) described himself as a “scientific heretic.” But he was brilliant. Einstein’s great work was done largely with the imagination rather than just data. It seemed like an intuitional grasp of reality – followed by some hard math.

    As a non-scientist, I know that my knowledge (and most laymen’s) is cartoonish. I have never been afraid of science, or felt that the great conspiracies are lodged there. The really great conspiracies are lodged among the wealthy – and it has always been so. Thank you for your frequently good thoughts!

  10. albert Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen,
    I like to make into short messages parts of your writings that strike home. That way I can easily refer your work to interested friends, or just to myself for later. So here’s something that I  put together, today. This is especially important to me because certain members in my family seem to have lost, or never found, faith. I find that I can pray (somewhat) by rereading.

    Faith begins as a change, moving
    away from the world as we know it

    towards the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known.
    It is initiated by God,  who draws us,

    encourages us, nurtures our longing.
    At the first it’s a simple will to believe.

    Next, thinking more often of Him,
    But not in a theoretical way–

    Him on whom we depend for everything
    and Who can help in our insufficiencies.

    Then the thought of God is made real
    by a short and frequent remembrance

    of Him. We learn that we depend on Him.
    In this way the one who wants to believe

    arrives at the point where he can…. He can’t
    begin anywhere else, except to believe,

    and not to do something. The first effort
    can have only this object: to believe.

    .    .     .     .     .

     (Adapted from https://glory2godforallthings.com/2018/04/14/obstacles-to-faith-in-the-modern-world/)


  11. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Archimandrite Zachariah, The Hidden Man of the Heart, China’s 12, Answer 1:

    “[Fr Sophrony] told us once that on the Holy Mountain somebody went to a great Elder to ask his blessing to become a fool for Christ, and the Elder said to him, ‘No! Now is not the time for that. Nowadays even by keeping the faith in the world we are fools for Christ’s sake!’ That reminds me of the saying of a Father from the fourth century. When asked, ‘What have we done in our life?’ he answered, ‘We have done half of what the Fathers did.’ When asked, ‘What will the ones who come after us do?’ He replied, ‘They will do half of what we are doing now.’ And to the question ‘What will the Christians of the last times do?’ He relied, ‘They will not be able to do any spiritual exploits, but those who keep the faith will be glorified in heaven more than our Fathers who raised the dead.’”

    Perhaps we will reach a time when all that is left for us are the “edges.”

  12. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Archimandrite Zachariah, The Hidden Man of the Heart, Ch 12, Answer 1:

  13. Karen Avatar

    Mike B., wonderful quote! Thanks.

    Dee, I was out on a rare “date” tonight with my beloved husband of 23 years. I had to read him your little “aside” in your comment to Fr. Stephen about your interaction with your husband surrounding your tendency to go into the “zone”, so he could understand what I was smiling about. He smiled in recognition, as I knew he would! It’s the same way with us….

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mike B. Truly a good saying but I have a difficulty personally with it. I find it to easy after reading it to excuse my own selfishness and indolence in prusuing union with God.

    I have to then say, thank God the last times are not yet.

  15. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Dee and Karen – Sounds like the interactions I have with my wife, She will suddenly pull up short, saying, “OK. That’s enough.”

  16. Byron Avatar

    Then the thought of God is made real
    by a short and frequent remembrance

    It has been a difficult Bright Week for me but today’s Liturgy, which I almost missed due to shoulder surgery on Friday, was exactly this! Not just a remembrance of God but Him revealing Himself again in my need. Glory to God!

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Karen and David Waite,
    It seems we three must have fairly patient spouses. Early in our relationship my ‘would be’ husband said that he thought I entered the world “in a pod”. It’s been our standing joke, especially when I accidentally say or do something out of “left field”.

    David and Fr Stephen,
    Any scientist who thinks they ‘know it all’ isn’t likely to find anything new. I’ve been completely abashed when I have encountered faculty in academic science who expressed that they thought that for one to be a ‘good’ prof/teacher they would have to know everything about their subject. I attempted to suggest that outlook might not be helpful for ‘would be scientists’. However this perspective usually wasn’t well received.

    Fr Stephen,
    From my perspective, you have an amazing “old salt” capacity to navigate the “edges” yourself. As far as I know, only someone who has ample experience in ‘that territory’ can write about it the way that you can. You surprised me a little about your reference to the pictorial approach to physics solutions. In fact, that was practically the only way I was capable of solving the ‘heavy duty’ problems, so to speak. In most of my early (undergraduate) work in which I worked part time in a lab and went to school, I had the perception that this was a huge deficit, mainly because it would take more time to solve homework problems. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that it became more apparent that it was actually a helpful ‘tool’. Little did I know this ‘weakness’ would be the avenue to my salvation.

  18. David Avatar

    I’ve been lucky to have a rather broad background in science. I began in a lab that collected simultaneous fMRI and EEG data. Then I went to a lab where I assisted with experimental work in traumatic brain injury. In the last few years I have worked as a graduate RA in transcriptomics, comparative genomics, bioinformatics, and now mathematical immunology. A project that I would like to spend some time on is using graph theory to represent protein residue architecture and then using the topological structures determine potential sites of allosteric regulation. Time will tell whether that pans out for me or not. I really do get a “high” from understanding the mechanisms that make the molecular world “work” and make life (at least in the biological sense) possible. Science is its own kind of sacrament and deserves due regard as such.

  19. Karen Avatar

    Dee and David,

    My sister wasn’t always as polite as my husband is when she was trying to get my attention when we were growing up. When I would get into one of my really “inward-focused” modes, she’d come up in my face and say in an obnoxious voice, “Earth to Karen! Earth to Karen!” Of course, in those days, I wasn’t always pondering the secrets of the universe. Sometimes I was just fixated on some boy I thought was cute, or some social trauma that had recently occurred (not infrequently these two coincided!).

  20. David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still

    Dee and Karen – My wife once gave me a bookmark that says, “A successful marriage is the result of a union between two great forgivers.” We are not perfect at that, but we try. We are beginning to make some progress, I think. After forty years.

  21. Karen Avatar

    David, that bookmark says it all, yes! Your wife is a wise woman. 🙂

  22. David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016 Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016

    Karen – Indeed she is. Thanks be to God.

  23. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    David ( from 8:52pm)
    Glory to God for your amazing work. The first word that came to my mind when you described your ‘interest’ was ‘beauty’! On account of your last sentence about sacrament in science, I thought you might enjoy reading (if you haven’t already read it) the second appendix in Alexander Schmenmann’s book, “For the Life of the World”. The second appendix is entitled: Sacrament and Symbol. I found it very edifying and gratifying reading. It’s short but packed with ‘good stuff’.

  24. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    David (again–sorry one more thought) In fact I think the whole book is likely good, but I haven’t read it all yet. I went straight to that appendix first.

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    David Waite and Karen,
    My husband has always had a forgiving nature, which undoubted was absolutely necessary for the longevity of our marriage. I cannot ascribe such a nature to myself. Although, thanks be to God, I’m learning.

  26. Jay Avatar

    I feel frustrated because I do not believe. And I am a leader in my church. Often I feel like I am expected to have certainty I do not have. But it is true too that I’m not sure I know what belief is. I think, Father, that you are talking about the difference between holding something in your hand and behind held in Someone’s hand. It is strangely comforting to think that what is needed is a shift in mode of perception rather than somehow changing the content of perception. It’s like if I wanted to believe in (behold) Mt. Fuji, I could get a plane ticket and do so. And with knowing God it’s almost like there is a plane ticket, but the ticket is my life. Or anyway it requires openness of heart and that is very painful. I resist it 99.999% of the time. I remember a moment when a fog of depression + anxiety that had been there for… well months at least, maybe years… suddenly lifted, and I heard a cardinal outside my window. I thought, ‘have they always sounded like that? I can’t believe how beautiful it is!’ And the Gershwin song played in my head- “how long has this been going on?” I’m usually numb to my feelings, and have to remind myself that as long as I am cut off from my heart I just won’t see things as they are.

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m not Fr Stephen, Jay, and yet what you wrote is honest. and important.

    You know this already but still, I just wanted to say that among the Disciples, Thomas needed more than just ‘hearsay’. He needed a tangible Risen Christ. This need for the tangible, if this is your need, is understandable, and I think, very human. Christ did not say to Thomas, “Satan get behind me” as He did to Peter. Instead He said to Thomas ‘here are my pierced hands and feet, and here is the side that was pierced’. (paraphrased) In my interpretation of Thomas, I believe his heart was indeed open, searching, and waiting. I might add though sometimes we get an ‘answer’ to a question that we didn’t know we were asking. There may be a hint of that in what you have written.

    Having an open heart and having gratitude are key in all things. If you have an open heart, that in itself these days and in these times, is a miracle (at least it would be for me).

    St Paul said: If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Cor 13:2 )

    For some reason, Jay I believe you have love. If I’m correct, then I would say you are well on your way to all that is needful. Be patient with yourself. Indeed it is matter of perception, but also of patience. Please forgive me for any presumptuousness. May God grant you peace.

  28. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sorry Jay, In that first sentence I edited out some words and intended to write this:
    I’m not Fr Stephen, but what you wrote is honest and important, and I want to respond, and yet I’m fearful I might not say what is most needful for you.

  29. Jay Avatar

    Thanks Dee, I appreciate your words and blessing. It is good to be reminded about the need to cultivate patience, openness, gratitude. I’m prone to a mechanistic view of reality + faith, and I’m glad for those moments when the veil is pulled away despite my inability to figure out how it works. I find Thomas to be a fascinating figure in the gospels. Elsewhere he professes a willingness to go and die with Christ. Among all the disciples, he presses (literally and metaphorically) in to Christ’s death. And among all the disciples in that room, he along touches the risen Christ. We kind of disparage his doubt (at least in the West), but when reading the story recently, I took it more to be the darkness of faith rather then cynicism or even skepticism.

  30. David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still

    When I was to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, I took the name Thomas, after Doubting Thomas. That is how deeply I relate to him. Signals got crossed, however, and during the rite Fr. Halley gave me the name Thomas Aquinas. I did not complain, because Aquinas had been on my short list. I now think that Thomas Aquinas and Doubting Thomas are actually quite similar. They both wanted proof. Like Doubting Thomas, Thomas Aquinas eventually got his proof through direct contact with the Body and Blood of Christ. While receiving the Eucharist towards the end of his life, he had a profound experience of the Presence, after which he said, “Compared to what I have experienced, all that I have written is just so much straw.” As a lifelong intellectual, that is a very powerful witness to me.

    By the way, I did not receive a new name when I was chrismated by Fr. Stephen on Lazarus Saturday. Just as well. I am happy with my Thomases.

  31. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    How wonderful that both you and David Foutch are in Fr Stephen’s parish. Such a blessing! And I’m delighted and grateful that you’re now ‘officially’ Orthodox, David!

    I really relate to the story of St Thomas, too. It never seemed to me he was acting out of hubris. Rather, he was hearing talk that Christ was visibly moving around them and seemingly fully alive again and he really needed something ‘concrete’ to help him on his path to accept, if not fully understand what was going on. Perhaps this tangible experience is simply what his heart needed for his salvation. –I hadn’t heard that story about Thomas Aquinas, though. But I can easily empathize with his reaction to his experience however.

    Sometimes I wonder how I might have reacted if I had had a ‘mind-blowing’ experience such as St Paul’s before my conversion. I think it’s possible that I would have considered myself crazy, and might not have accepted the reality of that kind of intense experience at all. I am grateful that my initial encounter with Christ was more on the subtle and ‘small’ side–just enough to give me pause and wonder. That ‘nudge’ was enough! It was profound even on that scale.

  32. jacksson Avatar

    Hello Dee, concerning love you reminded me of the book that I am reading right now (and rereading many segments), “I Love, Therefore I Am.” It is written by Dr. Nicholas V. Sokharov, a monk at the monastery in Essex and the nephew of St. Sophrony. He is discussing the belief structure of St Sophrony and it fits quite well into this blog of Fr. Stephen’s and the thoughts of many of those participating. I continually contemplate the title of the book where a lot is being said in five words.

    You mentioned the altar experience of Thomas Aquinas which I have read many times. Without reading the story, many people of Protestant and even Eastern Orthodox background, have trouble with him primarily because he was a part of the ‘enemy’; I can’t go along with that, I cannot judge, my job is to love. When I love the Lord God with all of my heart, all my soul, all my being, then I can say that I belong to God, but I am far from that and believe that the testimony of Thomas Aquinas indicated that he reached that point centuries ago.

    My goal in life is to love so that I can say that I am. That is a big and ongoing task.

  33. David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still

    Thank you, jacksson. God bless.

  34. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you jacksson for your reference to the book by Dr. Sokharov. I have’n’t heard about it but I’m one of many people who have been blessed by Elder Sophrony’s words and book on St Silouan’s life. I’ll check out this title that you’ve mentioned.

    I’ve not read anything of Thomas Aquinas’ work either, but I have no prejudice against him. I’m just sort of new to reading this kind of literature.–Obviously I’ve got a long way to go!!

    Many thanks for your comment!!

  35. John Avatar

    Father Stephen, I recognize the “sky-god” you mention in the article. He’s very much like the God I was taught to believe in as an evangelical Christian – a supremely powerful being dwelling in some second story (as you so well say) of the universe, watching the comings and goings of folks on earth and intervening now and then with a miracle here, an answer to prayer there (and maybe even a natural disaster once in a while, just to teach sinners a lesson).

    You contrast this with the God of the Fathers – God as the Ground of Being, as Reality itself.

    My trouble is: if we’re honest, isn’t the God described in the pages of the Old Testament very much like the “sky-God” you are so quick to dismiss? Sure, there are many direct statements about God (say, in the Psalms, or the “I AM” of the revelation to Moses) that seem closer to a “Ground of Being” God. But pretty much any place God is described as interacting with humans in the pages of the Old Testament, he’s doing so from the second story. He’s “looking down” on earth and sorrowing that he created man (the flood), he’s smiting the people of Egypt with plagues, he’s giving specifications for the materials to be used in the clothes of priests… He’s always “intervening” in the lives of the Jewish people, as a response to their prayers or as a chastisement for their lack of faith – and the only way you can “intervene” is if you’re coming downstairs from the second story from time to time. You can’t intervene if you’re everywhere present.

    I believe in the God of the fathers; but I dare say Moses and Abraham and the prophets believed in the sky-god, and it’s no wonder that most Christians do, too.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, there’s frequently something quite “local” in OT accounts regarding God. This is not surprising. The Orthodox Church recognized this, and therefore read the OT “critically.” One of the sad things among many modern Christians is the jettisoning of the theological wisdom of the fathers and the substitution of a bogus Christianity – complete with a sky God.

    As for Moses and Abraham, whatever they understood, they were worlds removed from what those in the surrounding cultures imagined.

  37. David Avatar

    John, I sympathize with your observations about the OT sky god. I just assume that spiritual growth and understanding takes decades for individuals and probably takes centuries for entire populations. So I’m not really surprised by OT characterizations of God as sky god. Perhaps to some degree that way of thinking is unavoidable for a time.

  38. Dean Avatar

    And yet some of the loftiest, most edifying words of Scripture are found in the pages of the OT prophets…thinking especially of Isaiah 41 and following chapters. No sky God there!

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Obviously, certain of the oldest bits of the OT reflect a somewhat sky-god-like idea – but throughout the OT – that caricature is constantly being critiqued and blown away.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    John, in considering the OT, you also have to take into account that in a linear sense the Incarnation had not yet been manifested in the flesh.

    “…He came down from heaven and was incarnate of Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.”

    The OT has to be understood from that reality as Jesus Himself taught His disciples.

    Those that reject Mary as Theotokos also reject the Incarnation and have no recourse but to recreate the Sky God our Lord makes impossible.

  41. David Avatar

    I dont mean to be contrary. I really dont…But the OT God isnt very likeable. He drowns the world: Old people, men, women, children, and babies. Abraham is told to sacrifice his only son Isaac. When Israel is freed from Egypt the first born children are targeted. When Israel finally gets to the promised land and is commanded to dispossess the people God tells Israel to ‘kill every man, woman, and child’ and ‘not to let your eye feel sorry.’ David is constantly praying for vengeance against his enemies. The history of Israel is one of a tribal nation and its tribal sky god in rivalry with other tribal nation and their sky gods.

    Of course, when you read the psalms and the prophets you see a deeper understanding of God penetrating the text. But, when read as history, Yahweh is a jealous god that demands animal sacrifice to appease sins. I dont think that reflects who God is, it reflects who Israel was.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David, it reflects humanity who needs God. Yet God not only bears with us He loves us any way. Slowly, He reveals Himself to His people. It is much as a farmer prepares a field from rocky ground, fences it about, plants seeds and tends the crops.

    Still the teaching of the Church is clear: the Old Testament Scriptures revel and testifiy to Jesus Christ.

  43. David Avatar

    I agree with everything you wrote Michael B.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Actually, no where does God in the OT ask for blood sacrifice to appease Him. That’s a false Protestant reading. As often as not, He criticizes that view, “I despise your feasts, etc.” The purpose of sacrifice in the OT is union with God, not appeasement.

    There is certainly some dark material there. Even Judaism by the time of Christ frequently was taking a more allegorical interpretation of the texts. “Love God and love neighbor” is recognized by the Pharisees as the greatest commandments. They’re just a bit confused about who is their neighbor.

    There is certainly an “evolution” of sorts within the OT – and the saints are clear about it. If anything, the OT was often an embarrassment for the bloody bits and all. Everything in the OT is leading towards Christ, but we should not read it as though it reveals God clearly. The consensus, in both East and West (Maximus the Confessor in the East and Ambrose of Milan in the West) is that the OT is “shadow,” the NT is “icon,” while the eschaton is reality itself.

    St. Irenaeus describes the OT as “myths” – that’s his word – unless it is read through Christ. Read through Christ, He may be seen. But, we have to have seen Him first in His death and resurrection.

  45. David Avatar

    Fr, I agree with every word you just wrote. Well said.

  46. John Avatar

    Thank you Father, David, and Michael for the brief exchange. Helpful words.

  47. Paula Avatar

    Father… because of the scientific nature of conversation here, I want to share the link below specifically with Dee. Forgive me if it seems too personal. Of coarse all are welcome to read it.

    Having received this short article in my inbox this morning, as I began reading it I couldn’t help but think of you. One thing I came away with is a better understanding of the “scientific mind”…the only way I can describe it is it is a “purity of thought”. I see a lot of similarities between this woman’s story and your experiences you have shared with us, regarding how God revealed Himself to you.
    With much appreciation,

  48. Kevin z Avatar
    Kevin z

    This is a hard one. Many many people do not allow for moments of silence in their life in which God can fill. I used to look derisively at prisoners who become zealously converted upon finding faith (The nature and flavor of that faith don’t matter in the context of this reponse). I do not anymore. It took near self destruction for me to ‘hear’ scripture when I read it. It took the silence of ‘how did I end up here’ before I could allow for God to offer help. I am ‘studying’ Orthodoxy but also participating by attending a church. I want to allow for my faith to grow and cultivate. I want to bring more humility into my life, quiet my ego and allow Providence to guide me.

    The so called ‘New Atheist’ movement seems co-opted by second rate Bond villains. Those guys are goofs. But it does speak to the times when people hear them speak and think it’s very clever or legitimate, lacking the sophistication to see the ‘God’ they deride is nothing more than a straw man characiture mirroring themselves.

    I have no issues with a One Story World. My struggle is with Envy. I get that the idea that strong Faith frees one from Envy. Or at least helps one manage more peacefully. And so. Through these experiences I agree the way up is down. Especially when every notion of modernity and ‘progress’ is completely inimical to this path. It would like to capture people with the notion/trap that ‘the way up is UP Faster/cooler/louder’ and to always seek ‘the good life’. A honey trap of static, vacuous assuage to the spirit of the Times. Frogs on a hot plate. Stuck in neutral.

    Terence McKenna once said ‘if it’s real it can take the pressure.’ My experience with Orthodoxy is that it can take nigh endless pressure because of its endless depth of realness.

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