A Particular Scandal

A character in a Peanuts cartoon once declared, “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!”

The statement accurately describes our problems with the particular. It is easy to love almost anything in general – it is the particular that brings problems.

Nowhere could this be more true than with God. Speaking about God in the abstract is extremely common – after all – He is “everywhere present, filling all things.” He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good-  all, all, all. The very nature of such speech is generalized and generic.

However, it is impossible to experience anything in general. For the great scandal or stumbling block of particularity is not so much God but us. We are inescapably particular – it is an inherent part of being human. We are circumscribable; we are limited; we are local. And we chafe at such limits. We prefer that the ego of modern man become the measure of the world itself. That which does not interest me does not exist.

The abstract, generalized God is the god of modernity. The generalized God cannot offend – there is nothing offensive about Him. But just as He cannot offend, neither can He be known because there is nothing there to be known. We only know particulars.

Everything by which we know God is particular. The ultimate particularity is Christ Himself – the God who can be circumscribed, drawn, pictured, nailed, spat upon and crucified. 

The same is true of our ongoing relationship with God. One aspect of classical Christianity is its interest in icons, shrines, oil, bread, holy places, bones, etc. For modern people all of these things are confusing and even offensive. 

At the very least, “holy objects” seem superstitious. But holy objects and holy places are deeply part of the particularity of human existence. For example, we do not love “food in general.” We have a favorite food. And our favorite is very likely far more specific. We have a favorite food cooked specifically by someone we know, perhaps even associated with a place and time we ate it. All of the memories we have in our lives are most often tied to specific people, places and things. We rarely remember simply that “I felt great then.” Our lives are extremely concrete.

The God whom we know – gives Himself to us in the particular. In classical Christianity that particularity is the very heart of the faith. For Christ is not merely God-become-man. He is God-who-became-aman

This particularity, according to the fathers, is the precise reason for making icons, because it is the property of a man that he may be depicted. An icon of Christ is proof and witness of His incarnation and particularity. We make icons in order to proclaim that God became a man.

But the Orthodox know that even an icon can become yet more particular. There are not just icons of the Mother of God, but the Vladimir Mother of God; the Iveron Mother of God; the Kazan Mother of God; the Tikhvin Mother of God, and so on. And each icon, though depicting the same Mother of God has its own unique story. And those unique stories continue as believers encounter that icon. It was the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God that protected Moscow from Tamerlane in 1395, etc.

And, of course, all of this seems like so much fuss over something that should be more general more generic

I have, from time to time, been invited to pray at certain public events. It has become common in America to be given “guidelines” for such prayers, often requesting the minister to be “generic” in his prayer (not proselytizing, or speaking of “the deity” in a manner that might give offense). Such guidelines were recently ruled unconstitutional though they’ve been around now for several decades.

It is, of course, the height of modernism – the desire for a God who gives no offense – the generic god. 

God is transcendently particular. He is the ultimate particular. For God alone is alone. He is not one of something of which there are two. He is the only God and thus the Transcendent Particular. 

And He leads us to Him (in His condescension) through particular places, things, words, people. But He does not condescend to become generic, for the generic cannot be the bearer of the Particular. An icon can be holy, but Art can never be. A man can be holy, but humanity can never be. 

And the Particular Who invades our lives through the particularities that we encounter is never generic. For the generic is no-thing – it is nothing. There is no generic, only the comfortable imaginations born of our desire to avoid the discomforts of the particular.

The more God is devoid of the particular, the more we reduce Him to a concept – even reducing Him to something like a natural resource: water, light, air, God. In such a position, God remains available (everywhere), inert and ready to be ignored or accessed, depending on our own requirements. The generic God is thus the ultimate consumer product. In a consumerist culture, there will always be pressure to move God towards the mode of “available resource,” a mere symbol for our own selfish desire for transcendence. Such a God underwrites and validates my “spirituality,” but makes no demands that might be occasioned by His own particularity.

The particularity of God will be seen as an increasingly offensive reality within a consumerist culture. Such a Particularity too easily assaults the universal claims of all consumers. So-called “non-denominationalism” is simply an ecclesiological expression of a generalized God in which nearly all particularities are seen as “man-made,” and merely reflect consumer desires. Any elevation of the Particular in religious terms is easily seen as an effort to control access to a generalized God (“You’re trying to put God in a box”). 

Conversion to classical Christianity requires the difficult acceptance of the Particular God (and thus a particular Church). That acceptance includes the rejection of the etiquette of the generic. You will offend your friends and family – for the acceptance of the Particular casts judgment on the general whether it is uttered or not. 

But this difficult acceptance is a necessary thing – for the generic God is – ultimately – no God at all. It is merely a god, a cipher for a cultural notion. The generic god cannot save for it can only offer something in general. 

Eternal life is an invitation into ultimate Particularity. Accept it, and you will become a Person, a true human being.

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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121 responses to “A Particular Scandal”

  1. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I thought to join the recent topic of particularity – by reprinting this particular article.

  2. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! Your last line in this article, “Eternal life is an invitation into ultimate Particularity. Accept it, and you will become a Person, a true human being.” Reminded me of Pinocchio becoming a “real boy” — forgive me but the original story constantly calls for particular actions by Pinocchio, who also suffers particular outcomes from these actions along the way of becoming a real boy.
    I pray that I will accept ultimate Particularity, by the grace of God and the intercessions of His Mother and our Saints (and your encouragement) I believe it is possible for myself and those God gives me in my life. Glory to God For All Things!

  3. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Fr. Stephen!

    Is the photo a part of Hadrian’s Wall?

  4. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Love this so much! Thanks, Father.

  5. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Where I live there are many people who want to create a general god of some sort which is composed of handmade components. A god of energy, a god of good intentions, etc. Basically a god of their own making who doesn´t offend and that isn´t dictated by the tenants classical Christianity. “Jesus is a hero of mine”. “I like Jesus”. These are just some of the statements I have heard over the years … but a Jesus Christ who is God incarnate and who is proclaimed to the world through and by his Church … this Jesus (a very particular Jesus) most of them will never accept. They are children of the Reformation/Enlightment who know better; who have cast away the superstitious in favor of something far superior (said tongue in cheek :-)).

    Lord have mercy.

  6. Esmée Noelle Covey Avatar
    Esmée Noelle Covey

    This article is particularly good!

    My own journey into Orthodoxy was through a particular book (The Mountain of Silence), where I read the particular words (“The purpose of the Christian Life is the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”) of a particular Saint (Seraphim of Sarov), who then brought me to a particular Church (Saint Seraphim Orthodox Church, OCA) in a particular place (Santa Rosa, CA). The whole experience has been particular amazing! After hearing so many others particular stories about how they particularly came to Orthodoxy, I have come to realize that God takes very particular care of each one of us, finding very particular ways to reach each of our hearts – ways that are often particularly meaningful only to us.

  7. Deacon Nicholas Avatar
    Deacon Nicholas

    Father, it was a particular joy meeting you at the “Beauty” conference in SC last weekend. My priest asked me to preach about it, and I used many of your stories and reflections–with particular attribution!

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for the article. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of the patristic teaching is that God became man, not a man, as you noted in the article. That is, God the Word assumed a full and complete human nature; but he did not assume a particular human man, a person. If he had, that would mean that there were two persons in the Incarnation, one divine and one human. Rather, the person of the Word is eternally divine, and this divine person now has two natures, one eternally divine nature and one assumed human nature.

    Is this your understanding as well? Again, please correct me if I’m wrong.

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Deacon Nicholas,
    Many thanks! So good to have met you!

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    Yes – a correction is in order. St. Theodore the Studite made a careful point regarding the fact that Christ became “a man” rather than a generic human being (there’s no such thing). His work “On the Holy Icons” expressly discusses this. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Logos of God, the Only Begotten Son of the Father, is the person who is incarnate, who takes human nature as His own (together with His Divine Nature). We could say that the Second Person of the Trinity is the “subject” of the God/Man Jesus Christ. But, an aspect of huma nature (of any nature for that matter) is that it requires particularity to be made manifest – even if that particularity is supplied by the Second Person of the Trinity.

    There simply is no such thing as a “nature” that is somehow “free-floating.” We can only know anything in particular. St. Theodore notes that Christ can be pictured precisely because He became “a man.” There could never be an image of “human nature.” However, it is consistent with human nature that it can be portrayed because it is only seen in “a man.” The iconoclasts argued that we cannot paint an icon of Christ because the Divine Nature cannot be depicted. St. Theodore countered with his defense on painting Christ as proof that He was truly incarnate as “a man.”

    It should be noted that when Christ is depicted in an icon, it traditionally has the depiction “Ho On” (“He Who Is”) in the Nimbus, noting, in language, that the One depicted is, indeed, the “I Am” of the Scriptures.

    Here is a relevant passage from St. Theodore:

    When I say “man,” I mean the common essence. When I
    add “a,” I mean the hypostasis: that is, the selfsubsisting
    existence of that which is signified, and
    (so to speak) the circumscription consisting of
    certain properties, by which those who share the same
    nature differ one from another, for example Peter and
    Paul. When Christ said to the Jews, “Now you seek to
    kill me, if He had said simply “man,” He could have
    meant man in general. But when He added, “A man who
    has told you the truth,” He revealed His own
    hypostasis or person. For the relative pronoun “who”
    has the same effect as the article “a.” Therefore,
    although He assumed human nature in general, yet He
    assumed it as contemplated in an individual manner;
    for this reason the possibility of circumscription
    exists (On the Holy Icons, III.18).

  11. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you for the clarification, Father. St. Theodore indeed has good biblical evidence on his side: “…the man, Christ Jesus.” My only concern was not to say the Word assumed a particular human person, but rather a human nature. For, it seems, the divine assumption of a particular human person would do the rest of particular human persons no good in terms of divinization. We all share a human nature, and this is what the Word divinized. Would you agree?

  12. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Just saw that you added the quote. 👍

  13. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you for posting this quote, Father.

    “Therefore, although He assumed human nature in general, yet He assumed it as contemplated in an individual manner; for this reason the possibility of circumscription [i.e. writing icons] exists.”

    For St. Theodore, there seems to exist a general human nature in which we all share. This nature – our nature – the Word assumed and divinized. I continue to believe theosis is the heart of the gospel: God became a human being so that human beings might become God.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    Of course, “God became a human being so that human beings might become God,” that is the Orthodox faith.

    It is problematic, however, (at least, somewhat), to speak of “natures” in that we cannot ever really contemplate a nature apart from a particular instantiation of it (hypostasis). We infer the nature, and do sometimes speak of it, but should always recall that we’re engaging in an abstraction. There is no human nature (or any other kind of nature) that exists apart from a hypostasization.

    Modern speech loves to engage in these abstractions. We say, “love,” as if everybody knew what it means, and then use it to justify abominations. When we say, “God is love,” we point to the Crucifixion of Christ. Love is revealed in the particularity of the Cross – it is cruciform, for example.

    But modernity loves these abstractions – and creates statistics in which the particulars disappear. It is a way to hide great evil. We say, “civilian casualties,” and we forget that each casualty had a name, a life, an infinite worth.

    It’s like the old Woody Guthrie song, “You won’t have a name when you fly that big airplane. All they will call you is deportees.”

    Nobody suffers in general. We suffer in particular. We exist in particular. If we are divinized, we are divinized in particular. Protestants don’t mind talking about saints, as long as we don’t use their names.

  15. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Of necessity God’s absolute transcendence and absolute particularity must sound like metaphysical rambling. But, this is no different than what Paul said about Jews and Greeks 2000 years ago. I expect it would be unrealistic for it to be any other way. However, this idea about the significance of absolute particularity seems like a hardcore rubber meets the road insight. It is a nascent syntax for understanding Dostoevsky’s Zossima, and why I can say loosey goosey things like “Salvation includes every blade of grass or nothing at all” and still have un-smacked fingers.

  16. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    Speaking of abstractions, when you mentioned that we do not love “food in general”, I was reminded of the “foodie”, who claims to love food in general.
    And indeed, I have seen, too often, the ego of modern foodies become the measure of the food itself.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Ook,
    A perversion if ever I heard one!

  18. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I glean from your comments, Father, that you are not a Platonist. 🙂 The position you describe doesn’t seem like Nominalism either, but more like an Aristotelian realism – the view that universals are real, but their existence depends on the particulars that exemplify them.

    From your description, it also sounds as if modernity, ironically, is actually quite Platonist with its many abstractions. (Though, isn’t “modernity” itself a rather abstract concept?) I’m not sure if the abstractions you mentioned are specifically emblematic of modernity. They do seem to have an ancient pedigree as well.

    That said, my only concern here was simply with that “human nature in general” that we all share and that the Word assumed, that “common essence” of humanity. I agree abstractions are sometimes intended for evil and harm – in both the ancient and modern worlds – but don’t the church fathers intend these abstractions for good and for our salvation? E.g. if there were no common human nature, the Incarnation wouldn’t save any particular human beings.

    Forgive me if I’m belaboring the point, but I am still unclear on what you mean and find this issue to be vitally important.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is quite easy for me to ignore the particularity of my own sin by trying to generalizing it in others or culture, etc. The fact is any sin of which I am aware is in my own heart too.
    Jesus call to repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand only makes sense if I repent of my sins and do not export them to anyone else. The same with St. Paul’s direction to “bless and curse not”.

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Wow … a lot of theological talk for Orthodox believers! HA! 🙂 🙂

  21. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Owen,

    “For, it seems, the divine assumption of a particular human person would do the rest of particular human persons no good in terms of divinization.”

    “If there were no common human nature, the Incarnation wouldn’t save any particular human beings.”

    Can you explain how you draw that conclusion?

    Thanks.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Sacraments are particular as well. Some, such as confession, are deeply intimate with the priest not only there to hear, guide and (if appropriate) absolve but to guard each penitent.

  23. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    Here is woefully inadequate thought I had when reading your question to Fr. Stephen. These are only my thoughts.

    First, appeals to things like essences and natures seem almost like the concept of epicycles–it’s a good model for now, but it will probably turn out to be inaccurate. Like the nature of God, for example. Is God compelled by his nature to do anything? No. God is free. So, what is the point in even talking about God having a nature? One, it is a ‘noise we make with our face’ to say something about the way in which the Trinity is one. In other words, it is useful to invoke the idea of nature in order to protect other ideas that are critical like the unity of God. Two, it is a ‘noise we make with our face’ to indicate the vast difference between God and creation. Frankly, I struggle to see its relevance beyond its pragmatic value. But, that’s just me. In computational science we work with models all the time, so its an approach I am comfortable with.

    These same thoughts apply to human nature. Outside of the pragmatic value of saying something meaningful about the manner in which humans are one as opposed to many its meaningfulness is lost on me. Please, don’t take offense I don’t mean to be dismissive.

    I think we can talk about words like ousia and physis without using vague concepts like nature. I prefer to think of these as “presence.” For example, God is a communion of three, but his presence is a unity. What I mean to say here is that a hypostasis can be present. A human being can be present. And when you encounter the hypostasis you encounter a presence. My meaning does not go much deeper than “Grass presents itself differently than human beings.”

    In my own woefully inadequate opinion, 80% of theology is necessary in order to give us that 20% that is absolutely necessary.

    Please, feel free to tell me what you think!

  24. Anna S Avatar
    Anna S

    Owen,
    Maybe a good way to articulate this is to say that God the Son assumed a human nature, but in so assuming it, He particularized it in Himself (or maybe we should say, as Himself. The main point is that human nature never actually exists as a generic non hypostasized (ie particularized) substance) but only in/as persons.

  25. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I really want to say something profound about that wall. Something along the lines of ‘the wall has a continuity that stretches beyond the place and time that we encounter the wall.’ Or, ‘every encounter of the wall is local but the continuity of the wall is nonlocal.’

  26. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    There’s always a danger in gleaning…so I’m glad you asked. First, there is a single, common human nature in which all human beings participate. Christ assumed that single, common human nature. That is the teaching of the Church.

    It would be possible, also, to speak about “human nature” as a reality that exists “in the mind of God” (or some such construct). The tricky part about being a Platonist is the danger of assuming that speaking about “natures” is what matters. If human nature exists “in the mind of God” (and it is certain true that all things exist in Christ), it is still the case that we only encounter human nature as it is instantiated in a single hypostasis (person). It is also true that our nature alone cannot save us. If that were the case, Christ, having assumed our common, single, human nature would have immediately divinized all of us – and we see that is not actually the case. Our divinization (I look especially to St. Sophrony in articulating this) is being fully “hypostatic” in the proper sense.

    In our fallen state – we experience our personhood in an extreme individualized sense – in which love is frequently absent. It is lonely and broken. Instead, we are told, “I have called you by your name.” That is the voice of God to the hypostasis (person). We exist, not as natures, per se, but as persons who participate in a single, common nature. But the spiritual struggle is quite personal – even hypostatic (particularly as we experience it within the life of the Church).

    So, yes, a single, common nature. But, the emphasis is on our personhood. That’s where the battle rages.

    BTW, no problem belaboring the point. It’s a very important point and worth pondering, belaboring, etc. I wrestled with various aspects of this at a certain point in my life – and continue to pick up various nuances as time goes on.

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Pictures have become problematic on the blog – having created a strict rule for myself not to use pictures that are not copyright free. If you go back through past articles, you’ll see that most of the pictures have disappeared. I’m still slowly cleaning things up – and I still plan to do a major overhaul on the general blog appearance itself (using a new template).

    But this wall is indeed Hadrian’s Wall (a copyright free pic of it). I chose it out of my media library – as I was thinking about boundaries, which seem related to the question of particularity.

  28. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen,

    Can you help me to understand something?

    I find the idea of nature to be problematic. I accept evolution as a fact. There is too much support for it. It is part of our story. Then was it God’s plan that in the evolution of Life there would come to be instances of all the natures? At what point in evolutionary divergence does something become an instance of a nature that its progenitors were not?

    Why is the idea of many natures more helpful than the idea of a “cosmic” nature that all the different things in this universe participate?

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I think that our imagination runs away with us on this one. We kind of think person/nature like body/soul, as if the nature were something dwelling in us, etc. In that case it becomes very problematic very quickly.

    If I changed the word, “nature,” into “telos,” it might be easier. The nature is the “what-ness” of our existence, the “end” and “purpose” of our existence. It’s not even necessary to imagine this with material imagery. It is clearly reflected, in some way, in our genetic make-up, but is not the same thing as our genetic make-up.

    But, if I were thinking of “human” in evolutionary terms – then our “human-ness,” our “nature,” will have always been there in some manner – though at a far greater distance from its telos. In that sense, the world has been moving towards this story in which we dwell since its beginning.

    It’s useful language (nature/person) though both are somehow larger than our mere biology. Not without our biology – simply larger. Don’t know if that helps.

  30. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for your immensely helpful feedback to my comments. Now that I’ve poked and prodded – as if I could stand in judgment over such realities – I admit I bow humbly before the awesome mystery of “nature.” I use a lot of words sometimes, but I really haven’t a mental clue; I’d much prefer the experience. Participation does seem to be key, though, as you noted. What I find most staggering, perhaps, is the fact that Jesus Christ lived a perfect human life, manifesting the very quintessence of our nature, and *thereby* most fully revealed the Divine Life. There is none more human than Jesus, and *thus* there is none more divine. I take this to be the dynamic out working of Grace fulfilling nature. Because God manifests himself in and as the created order, Christ is the apex of creation, demonstrating the telos of our nature as the Last Adam. For me, these gospel realities are the rich payoff of an accurate, but admittedly often-arid, study of nature in the abstract. May God grant us the experience at which the concepts merely point.

  31. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon and Anna,
    Thank you for your comments. I’m sorry I am just responding. What you wrote was helpful to me on both accounts.

    Mark,
    Fr Stephen’s response to me, I believe, answers your question. If not, I could try to say something more.

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I like the telos interpretation. That seems to connect well with many other verses. Sticking with the ousia-as-telos, then in what sense can it be said that God “has” a nature? What is God’s telos? This is starting to smell like angels on needles; however, I want to hold onto the shift in focus created by the ousia-as-telos. I am sensing incongruity with the idea that God has a telos. It seems like God defines the teloi of created things and that the teloi is implicit to each logoi. How is that type of speech transferred to God who is absolutely free?

  33. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    We are told that the nature/essence of God is beyond knowing – and cannot be known. He is the Telos of every telos – the Goodness of every good. That’s about the best I can do with the question.

  34. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    If I might insert a brief word, Simon, I would humbly suggest that God does not “have” a nature. God simply is who and what God is, without parts. The doctrine of divine simplicity – the teaching that all that is in God, is God – can be a contentious topic between eastern and western Christians. But however we interpret it, the church fathers seem to speak with one voice in asserting God’s simplicity. God transcends the separable component parts which the human mind conceives. Only creatures have “parts” – but even that, I think , is a mystery.

  35. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Thank you for your reflections, Owen. I don’t know why, but I find metaphysics to be so completely speculative and hypothetical that if it wasn’t for the fact that the Church speaks of God’s nature I would dismiss it as vestigial Platonism. In fact, when on that rare occasion junior scientists speak of metaphysics I leave the room. I don’t mean to come across dismissive, but metaphysics in general seems like an exercise of the imagination. That I think is in short why I prefer to think of nature as a telos.

    I appreciate what you’ve said about God’s simplicity. I think that’s about as much as anyone can say.

  36. John R Royse Avatar
    John R Royse

    That’s why our Father is very interested in justice, treating the alien, orphan, and widow with dignity, honor, and respect.

    He gets offended if we don’t realize “the least” are part of ‘for me’.

  37. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    I definitely get it. Metaphysical discussions can be downright unedifying. We all have a metaphysic, though, whether we explore it or not. Indeed, “thinking of nature as a telos” is rather high metaphysics. Just saying. 😊

    I personally prefer the metaphysic often espoused by Christian mystics which directs us to the True Self in Christ.

  38. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Dear Father Stephen,

    In the evening and morning prayers, I am always reminded of your writings on particularity because, curiously, God doesn’t appear to love us in particular, but “mankind” in general. In contrast, within the prayers, He is often angered by my particular sins. It is possible that “mankind” is a poor or sloppy translation, but His goodness, mercy, and loving-kindness are always depicted in the prayers as being a general characteristic of God and one in which we can participate if we have enough virtue, but His love is not one that He exercises toward us particularly.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, Father? It’s very discouraging.

  39. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dear Carlos,

    From my Protestant perspective, God loves humanity in general as well as particulary. How could this be otherwise?

    Also, I´m not certain I would say God is angered by our sins. this sounds too much like penal substitutionary atonement.

    I would also appreciate Fr. Stephen´s insights on this matter.

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Carlos,
    My heart ached as I read your comment and question. I well understood what you are saying – and hope that my answer will help you pierce the fog of words. God’s love for us is utterly particular (He’d have died on the Cross if you were the only person involved), and utterly particular for all. He never loves any of us in an impersonal manner (which, I think is the problem with “loving manking in general”). But the language of the prayers in our various books is easily misleading. They saints who wrote the various prayers that we have inherited were utterly immersed in the Psalms, for example, and much of their language reflects it. But, it is the language of love and desire. Here is an article that might be of some use: The Erotic Language of Prayer.

    The language of the prayers is extreme – but it is in the extreme language of lovers. We read that God is “angry” over our sins – and head off in a literal direction (often colored by various dark thoughts of our cultural inheritance or our own anxieties and neuroses). We dwell on such things and draw false conclusions. First, and above all, we stand before the Crucified Christ. That Reality is the pure definition of the love of God. From the lips of the Suffering Christ we are told that we are forgiven. From those same lips we hear, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Do you imagine that His words to the thief were meant only for the thief? They are recorded because they are meant for each of us – as we call out to Him, “Remember me when you come into Your Kingdom!”

    In the article I shared – I use this example from the prayers:

    O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

    The prayer indeed describes God’s “love for mankind” – but the point of the prayer is, “Show me…show me…receive me.”

    We should not be satisfied with thinking of God in general – but press forward until we know Him in particular. God is good – His will is good – His will for me is good.

  41. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks for that explanation Fr. Stephen. Is it not also important to note that while the Psalms (for example) express the cry of the writer´s heart, they do not necessarily accurately depict the character of God? Might the God depicted in the Psalms, also, be a God that accomodates himself to an ancient near east culture and its customs and as such the written revelation (therein) is not to be taken literally?

  42. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Carlos,

    Indeed, I would try not to focus on a single word like “mankind” because, as you mention, we are dealing with translations of works written by people in a much different context than our own.

    The parable of the Lost Sheep, however, is something that communicates universally and, I think, addresses your question. The shepherd loves his entire flock, yet the one lamb against the 99 receives his particular attention and care when it strays.

    Each of us does sin individually and particularly. That God loves all of us simply for being human should not be discouraging in that it means–regardless of the magnitude of our individual sin and the degree to which we have strayed–we are still part of the flock and can return to the fold.

    Rather than discouragement, this awareness should encourage us toward humility. To return to the fold in my experience requires genuine humility, and that is why Psalms such as the Fiftieth are so effective in prayer.

    I hope this helps you.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, there is an immensity to Jesus that tends to make me look small because sin keeps us small. There prayers help enlarge our souls and our hearts.

  44. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Dear Father Stephen and Mark,

    Thank you for your sympathy and for your insights into this matter.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  45. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    Fair point. However, I think that switching the focus away from vague terms like “essence” or “nature” to telos is a move away from metaphysical abstractions. The idea that there is a state of beauty or fullness towards which creation is approaching through the brooding of the Spirit is less speculative, or so it seems to me.

    I used to object when other grad students would insist that everyone has a metaphysic. I have never understood that insistence. Maybe you can elaborate on what that means because it seems to assume a lot.

    Another reason I am resistant to the idea of a human nature is that we end up with a plethora of natures that are discreet and distinct from one another and from the cosmos. I lean hard in the direction that there is only one nature “human nature” and that nature is differentiated in endless forms in creation. I want to lean hard in the direction that Christ took on “human nature” he took on everything stars, planets, Tardigrades, grass, dogs, cats, and people. Otherwise in what sense are humans a microcosm of the macrocosm of creation? And would appreciate if someone could elaborate on why thinking that way about the incarnation is erroneous.

  46. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    You may be right about metaphysics. My own unprovable intuition is that everyone lives with an overarching outlook on reality, a worldview, be it implicit or explicit. Personally, I find the embodiment of an implicit worldview to be much more interesting. The implicit mode is always more metaphorical, more poetic. Orthodoxy certainly leans somewhat away from abstract metaphysical conceptualization, and more toward the incarnational, implicit imaging forth of its outlook on reality – certainly more so than the western church has historically tended to do. However, I would not absolutize that distinction, for several of the Greek fathers were deft metaphysicians of a more explicit type.

    Your explanation of the one nature of the world, “human nature,” which Christ assumed is interesting. I do wonder if a both/and approach is needed here. For instance, thinking in terms of the One and the Many, the cosmos can be seen truly from either perspective. The spokes of a wheel provide an illustration. At the outer rim of the wheel, the spokes are many; at the hub, they are one. We could place human nature on the outer rim, as merely one of many cosmic natures. If we place the human being at the center, however, in the image of God – as the church fathers did – human nature then acts as a cosmic connecting point, a mini world, the microcosm in which all cosmic diversity is unified in God. This nature Christ assumed.

    The modern perspective, especially under the influence of darwinian evolution, has made human nature merely one among many other, equally important natures. Right or wrong, this was not the ancient view. There was a hierarchy which has been flattened out. Contemporary science may admit that humans are the most highly evolved; but that evolution is a chance occurrence. Our species and other species may transform such that we are no longer the most highly evolved. Grappling with the traditional anthropocentric outlook of Christian faith – and other faiths – is at the heart of the contemporary faith/ science dialogue, I think.

  47. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    One further thought on the image of God at the hub of the wheel: some would see the divine nature as the unifying factor of the cosmos. I think this is true, and it’s where metaphysics is most enlightening. What does it mean to say human nature images God? We are not God, but neither are we separate from God. We might say our true nature subsists in God as light subsists in flame. We are not God; and yet God shines forth as us. God’s self-giving, self-emptying act gives us being in God. The repeated scriptural command to “remember” calls us to exercise our microcosmic vocation to realize God’s image by performing the likeness. We have forgotten, and continue to forget, the grace at the heart of creation: divine-human communion. As God, Christ reveals this to be our highest human vocation – to realize, recognize, and remember that God brought us out of Egypt into the Promised Land, brought us from darkness to light. As the only creatures who “remember,” we act as the cosmic hub in Christ. 🛞

  48. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Owen. Could you explain please a bit more in detail what you believe to be the difference between east and west as it pertains to metaphysical conceptualization?

    In terms of evolution and the faith/science dialogue, there is a Russian academic who is also an Orthodox Christian who posits that the process of evolution itself is a fallen biological process. He believes that the big bang was the first observable act of creation, but not necessarily THE first creative act. If he is correct, then I can rest more easily when I see a lion kill a zebra on the low African veld since I don´t think the horror we see in the natural realm was ever intended by God. I also think regardless of what the modern scientific perspective might be, and regardless of where human beings may end up on the evolutionary scale, this doesn´t dimish (IMO) what Christ did to save the world from sin, satan, and death.

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Owen,
    I want to leap into this conversation for a moment – though I’ll leave Owen to describe what he sees in the differences of East and West in metaphysics.

    There are a variety of ways of approaching the creation story. St. Basil, in his anaphora (Eucharistic prayer), when describing the expulsion from paradise, says:

    “Thou didst set him in a paradise of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Thy commandments. But when man disobeyed Thee, the true God Who had created them, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the
    earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself.”

    His language is a subtle echo of Origen’s thought (which is quite common in the East), in which paradise is not envisioned as being here in this world (though its location is not discussed further than that). But, Adam and Eve are expelled “into this world.” St. Paul does not describe creation as “fallen,” but, rather, as “made subject to futility” in light of human sin. There is nothing that would demand an account of creation (of “this world”) that has it moving from some unfallen state into a fallen state. It might well have been “subject to futility” from its very beginning, in view of the fall of man and his expulsion from paradise.

    St. Maximus’ account of the human creation and fall describes it as virtually simultaneous with our creation – though not actually simultaneous. There’s much more fluidity in a number of the Fathers than we are used to seeing in many settings – though it’s not a huge issue in their writings. It became a “huge issue” in modern thought on account of competing modern narratives and literalist biblical treatments. I don’t think that there is anything in modern science that would have presented problems for the Eastern fathers – bearing in mind that “science” is not a single narrative itself – but, when well done – is a very fluid thing on its on.

  50. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    As a general tendency, not as an absolute distinction, Western Christianity has tended to be more scholastic, “school” oriented, than the Eastern Church. In this way, the Orthodox have tended to remain more mystical, liturgical, and monastic, as a general rule. Roman Catholicism has, in the main, exhibited a stronger bent to philosophical formulations of the faith, including fine rationalistic distinctions and logical categories. Again, this is not hard and fast, but one can even see today that often Catholics establish schools whereas the Orthodox establish monasteries. These trends likewise engender somewhat distinct approaches to the spiritual life.

  51. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Owen. Understood.

  52. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. Is Orthodoxy generally united when it comes to how is views evolution? If evolution is not a fallen biological process, but rather the process God created and uses to bring about bio-diversity, how then do we reconcile a good and loving God with the horrors we see as part and parcel of the evolutionary process?

  53. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    There is no united position regarding evolution in Orthodoxy – you’ll find a full range of opinions. I’m not saying that evolution is not a “fallen biological process” – but would describe it as an example of a creation “made subject to futility” – which includes all of the horrors we see in the natural world. It is not a world of perfection – but the arena of Divine Providence, in which God continuously brings good out of even the tragic and horrible events within creation. It must be remembered that when we speak of “God” – He is made known fully in His revelation as the Crucified Christ. Just as Christ is united to the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the sick, etc. (Matt. 25), so He is united in every suffering within His creation. Indeed, that Creation “groans” is evidence of that union. It is the groan of Christ on the Cross.

  54. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen! May I pass your thoughts onto a friend who is creating an anthology on evil in the natural world? My friend (the compiler) is Protestant, but he is also trying to incorporate Orthodox teaching, thoughts, etc. into his work.

  55. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Feel free to share. My thoughts on the blog are for public consumption (may God have mercy on me!).

  56. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. You have been so helpful.

  57. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    Orthodox Christians surely have [rather wildly] divergent views on the various evolutionary theories. It is not difficult to ascertain this
    We could perhaps say there are two opposite groups: “Compatibil-ism” and “Incompatibil-ism”.
    The first proclaim the compatibility of science and faith, viewing both as rather complementary revelations of God, holding seeming contradictions as merely outwardly apparent – with a resolution always being possible.
    Incompatibilists would state that science can actually appear to be incompatible with faith – especially when that science is philosophically based on types of naturalism or even an ideological ‘scientism’ (elevating human reason above God’s divine revelation).
    There are no dogmatic treatments (what with modern science having developed post ecumenical councils) examining how to view or to resolve “conflicts” – when scientific findings appear as if they somehow contradict divine revelation in someone’s understanding.

  58. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Dino.

  59. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    “He is united in every suffering within His creation. Indeed, that Creation “groans” is evidence of that union. It is the groan of Christ on the Cross.”

    Wow. So helpful. Many kind thanks, Father.

  60. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    I see what you are saying about metaphysics as a worldview, either implicitly or explicitly. My understanding may be too narrow and doesn’t reflect how it is actually used academics in philosophy. I didn’t really understand the “Saving the Appearances” by Barfield. Every time I thought I did *BAM!* I could see that I didn’t. But, maybe he influenced my worldview more than I am aware. I don’t understand what the truth about this universe is. It completely escapes me. I can’t even really say that I understand its appearances. In some ways I’m a hard phenomenologist: I see phenomena, but I don’t construe the phenomena with any essential. I guess a non-essentialist. The perception of phenomena is not a worldview. The resistance to indulge essentialism is an effort to eschew metaphysics. And to profess a radical ignorance is just an effort at honesty. So, I would say that I have been parading myself as having a non-essentialist, non-metaphysical phenomenology. But what I hear you saying is that once I make the statement “I believe that the world is created” that I show myself to be wearing the Emperor’s new clothes: My splendid anti-metaphysic robes are nothing at all! I would also think that you might see phenomenology as being a worldview and as such a metaphysic. Is that correct?

    I may be doing a sort of folk-metaphysics when I speak of ontology, teleology, and hypostasiology, but I don’t do it for the sake of doing it. There are usually pragmatic concerns that compel the concession. I see it as an exception to an axiom.

    Your metaphor of the wheel, I think, is really perceptive and useful.

  61. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Dino,
    I would add to Dino’s good description that in today’s modern context – where “science” itself has often been politicized – the conversation with Orthodox theology is made yet more difficult. We could discuss science in the abstract – but then when we see what is published, by whom, and for what reasons, who is funding, not funding, etc., the abstraction is becoming ever more rare.

    Theology has its own concerns that push certain narratives as well. We live in a mess. God is good, and I pray that His grace preserves us in the midst of it all.

  62. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks again Fr. Stephen. Do you prefer we don´t post links to articles in the comment section of your blog? I recently heard of another Orthodox Christian thinker who posits that God hard-wired death into creation but not evil. As such death in the natural realm, according to this man, is something that we need to accept as part of the life cycle. If that is true, it leads me to ask the question why did Christ need to defeat death?

  63. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I prefer that commenters not post links to articles. The language of Scripture (which is, for me, preferrable whenever possible) is that God made the creation “subject to futility,” and that it wasn’t a design of its perfection but something that was done in light of the human fall. Death, in the Scriptures, is an “enemy.” Creation groans in its face. Every creation tends to abhor death and struggles against it until the final moment.

    Again, Orthodox theology is rooted in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of how the Church has read them and understood them through the centuries. I cannot think of any of the Fathers who would have described death as “natural.” We not free to just make stuff up in the manner of Protestant theology. You can send the link to me in my private email if you like.

  64. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    I think we generally agree on this. If I’m reading you correctly, all phenomena are empty of a permanent, unchanging, individual and separate nature. And yet there is “one nature,” undefinable, which pervades all phenomena, neither arising nor passing away.

    St Maximus writes,

    “Love is a good disposition of the soul by which one prefers no being to the knowledge of God. It is impossible to reach the habit of this love if one has any attachment to earthly things.”

    The term “knowledge” in Maximus refers to an immediate, mystical experience of God. Any earthly attachment, including clinging to a metaphysical system, impedes this knowledge. This counsel comes from one of the most profound metaphysical thinkers of the Church!

    The upshot seems to be that, while such teaching can be helpful to reach the knowledge of God, as a pointer, it is not ultimate. Doctrine should be used skillfully, in a mode of detachment, or inner freedom (both translations of the Greek word apathia). Creaturely concepts are like a raft to cross a river: once we reach the other shore, it is no longer needed.

  65. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. Glad I asked.

  66. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    That is extremely helpful. I’ll be in touch soon

  67. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,

    I have some thoughts on what you are probing.
    On the one hand, we could say that death is natural, and on the other that death is unnatural…
    It is natural for a creature, {self-}separated-from-its-Lifegiving Creator (i.e.: according to itself), and it is simultaneously unnatural for it, according to its Creator’s will for it.
    So, when speaking of creatures [created from nothing], death can indeed be on the one hand understood as entirely and fundamentally “inherent” to them all, since they have originated ex nihilo and are in a perpetual danger of returning to that particular ‘origin’ of theirs.
    However, God’s good will is for His creature to attain eternal well-being in Him and does not create ‘unto death’ but ‘unto eternal life’.
    This means that the kind of life that we have in God is at the very least, “death-less” – we must try very hard to escape His good Grace and ‘accomplish’ our return to our inherent creaturely death.
    Sounds as if we have been given a freedom to determine what our origin will be: nothingness or God.
    Primordial Adam was immortal according to grace, not according to nature.
    However, since through the ‘Fall’ Man choses (?) death instead of God, God in His inconceivable love comes and transforms even this very ‘choice’ of Man unto an ‘entrance’ into the eternal Life originally planned for His creature (rather than into death).
    We can still attempt to escape His good love, due to our godly “freedom of self-determination towards God”, (our greatest gift which is also our greatest danger), but we in Christ we have unshakeable evidence that God will always try and transform our evil choices unto good, beyond anything we can conceive.

  68. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    As far as death as an enemy. I understand that is the language in the Scriptures and the tradition. But everything in this universe is subject to change and entropy. Biological life exists because stars die. St. Augustine posited that anything that is created is subject to corruptibility. So by that logic death has been implicit from the very beginning. I wonder why can’t we could posit a death in futility versus a death in non-futility?

  69. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    Well said. Thank you!

  70. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Of course everything in the universe is subject to change and entropy – it’s part of what “subject to futility” means.

    What is at stake in the Tradition – is that we understand the goodness of God as foundational. Death, suffering, etc., are not “good,” though God in His goodness brings for good in spite of them. So, as we frame the narrative, it is something to keep in mind. That, I think, is uppermost in the various classical treatments of the question.

    I’ll add – St. Athanasius makes much of the fact that creation is created “ex nihilo” (out of nothing), and that it’s nature is thus “nothingness.” Thus, though intended by God for participation in eternal life, this was to be a shared outcome with humanity – who chose otherwise – in breaking communion with God. So, in that sense, it was created “subject to futility” but “capable of eternity.” Or something like that.

  71. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Perhaps for my benefit Dino could elaborate because I am unclear what the main points are.

  72. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, there is both a general and a specific “death”. By the Grace of Jesus Christ and His Holy Angels mercy and forgiveness can be extended to the dying to enter into Life. May it be so for each of us.
    His Mercy endures forever!

  73. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fascinating discussion of death. I haven’t heard it asked yet, but was there death before “the Fall”? As Simon pointed out: we cannot even fathom biological life without biological death. The cycle is profoundly interdependent. Perhaps most basically is that without death, we don’t eat. The cycle of seasons comes to mind as well. And autumn is without doubt the most beautiful!

  74. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    In the Bibilical narrative, there is no death before the “Fall,” certainly not in paradise. If, however, you follow the lead of Origin (possibly Basil as well), then we are told nothing about “this world” prior to the Fall, but you get the idea that it’s operating differently – and we are expelled from paradise into this world.

    There is a problem here – and that is the movement back-and-forth between our scientific imagination and the Bibilical/theological imagination. It’s certainly possible to form a narrative in which both are satisfied – or to form a narrative in which you’re left with some unresolved questions.

    My suggestion is to let it go and just ponder it a bit. I have no taste for trying to impose an answer on a question which has been resolved several different ways by major figures within Orthodoxy.

  75. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I’ve written the following for about an hour or so. And when I submit it, it may be out of synch with the conversation.

    I’ve enjoyed the discussion here, reading today Owen’s, Simon’s and Matthew’s comments. And I particularly appreciate your treatment of science and the interface between science and Orthodox theology.

    I offer these thoughts because I often encounter students in the courses I teach who are bewildered and feel alienated from their religious backgrounds because of what they are taught regarding the current streams of philosophy of science. I’m no expert in such a field whatsoever. Nevertheless, I’m a ‘science practitioner’ and an Orthodox Christian. I hope what I say here might be helpful. If I err, especially regarding Orthodox thought, I ask for forgiveness and correction.

    For reasons of the quirks of my upbringing, I was brought up to perceive that some of the “problems with science” were never seen as a science problem per se but as a Western version of science. It seems you’re saying something similar.

    Across the decades that I have been involved in science, there have been several treatments or revisions of the hierarchy of biology. The latest categories are now dictated by genetics. I find it rather quaint that when I first entered academic science in my late teens, my university-level biology textbook had two leaves, one for the “plant kingdom” and the other for the “animal kingdom.” For various reasons, that construction fell away.

    What I like most about a few of the current constructions in science (now taking a chemist’s view at the molecular level rather than a biologist’s view at the organism level) is that there is an implicit resemblance to the Orthodox view of the relatedness between us and the cosmos. The scientific view of the “connectedness” through molecular structure exemplifies this. The active sites of important energy-converting macromolecules, for example, in the mitochondria of animal cells and the chlorophyll in plant cells, are so similar that it is believed that these organelles had a common ancestor connecting plants and animals. At the center of the active sites are metals, connecting us to the minerals of this earth.

    This deep connection between life and the cosmos is God-created and is no accident of creation. We might use statistics to explain or model phenomena; however successful the application of statistics is, it is still a tool. Its usefulness for revealing relationships doesn’t mean the cosmos is ‘running’ on chance, no matter the usefulness of the null hypothesis. It only means that we devised a tool to obtain a ‘birds-eye’ view of the workings of the Lord. That lens is still very dark and difficult to see through. Let’s not forget how difficult it is to understand dark matter, which currently defies most of our current constructions of atomic theory.

    Father, I find it edifying how you described entropy as similar to the Biblical term “subject to futility”. Even still, the deeper we understand entropy, the more difficult it is to generalize it without revising, reforming, and intertwining it with new theories such as complexity. For example, a question came up: how have life forms become more complex in evolution? There was an apparent conflict with prior understandings of entropy. Only in the last decade or so have we needed to assert new complexity theories, such that the summation of activity at the molecular level does not conflict with the theory of entropy itself. The concept of entropy was originally devised for applications in industry, not for understanding the universe theologically or for molecular processes scientifically. Things have changed since the Industrial Revolution, and new theories are in place to enable entropy to describe a thermodynamic process in new arenas.

    Notwithstanding such developments in science, whatever we say of fallen activity in the world, including death, we need to remember the Lord’s word to describe creation (including the world) as “good.” It is the arena of unfolding our communion in Christ through Christ’s incarnation, trampling death by death, His Cross, and His Resurrection, His salvation of us and the cosmos. As we enter communion in Christ, through Baptism, through our life in Christ, we bring the entire cosmos (contingent on and within us) with us.

  76. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Thank you for posting that, Dee.

  77. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee,
    In molecular biology entropy and enthalpy follow a very deterministic formula. As you must know it is a fundamental metric in molecular biology. I disagree that entropy/enthalpy was designed for industry. It is a metric for understanding the order/disorder of a system undergoing change. The delta-delta G (DDG) metric is used to understand the stability of molecular systems and structural biology it is used to study the stability of protein structures. There is such thing as an arrow of time at scale.

    Stochastic processes are important. If it wasn’t for the fact that at bottom systems are–at least at the quantum level–probabilistic, then the system would be entirely deterministic. It’s the stochastic, probabilistic foundation that allows for the necessary possibility of molecular variance.

    Dino,
    I think I am keen on your idea of choosing our origin. I think we become destination oriented and so we think we are choosing our end when it may be a case of choosing our beginning (whatever that means). I haven’t thought of it that way before. Perhaps it rhymes with the idea of becoming inoriginate?

    Fr. Stephen,
    For me it is an open question: “When theology and science clash, what should the person of faith do?” In my worthless, not-worth-heeding opinion, I choose science. I choose it over tradition or scripture. I have no interest in persuading anyone to see it that way. If someone wants to believe that the earth is 6000 years old and flat as a pancake that’s not my concern. But, if there was a conflict between science and theology on these issues, I would have to go with science as a matter of conscience. To slam a gavel down as if some theological question is closed and cannot be challenged by science…that has never turned out well for Christianity.

    I don’t really regard myself as using my “scientific imagination” as if I am making it up as I go along. But it is hard to avoid that impression when doing metaphysics. It is not fair at all to compare the “theological imagination” with “scientific imagination”. The first is purely mental construction: the mental framing of a purely hypothetical and then by authority declaring that hypothetical true such that it cannot be revisited. At the very least, in science debunking theories and results is rewarded.

    Owen,
    I resonate deeply with your observation about the beauty of the fall season. I will be in touch shortly. I cannot avoid the conclusion that whatever may be happening in this universe there was never a time here where things were “deathless.” How could that be??? I prefer to think that being embodied in this universe is what it means to be subjected to futility. I don’t know why we necessarily have to equate futility with evil. Otherwise what the scripture is saying that God subjected all things to evil on the basis of hope. That doesn’t add up for me.

  78. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    There is a paradox in the fact that, although there was no death before the fall, there was ‘kenosis’. Kenosis can be seen as a type of death, one that existed even before the fall of the fallen angelic spirits.
    So, even though we were created for participation in eternal life, and, only through breaking communion with God could we participate in death, the tree of Life, has always been the Cross, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
    So if “food is death” then “love is death” too, to die for someone else, but that death is actually authentic eternal life. So we need to retain awareness that there is one death – as commonly understood – unto futility/perdition – and there is another death -unto eternal Life in Christ.
    This life-giving death is a requirement for participation in eternal freedom from what we commonly understand as death.

  79. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino,

    That helps. Thank you.

  80. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    By “scientific imagination” I mean the narrative we create (and constantly revise) based on scientific information. That narrative can only be done by imagination. That doesn’t invalidate it. Theological imagination, I think, also takes into account scientific information, I believe. It certainly was the case for the Fathers.

    Also, in no way do I equate “subject to futility” as some that equates to evil. Sorry if I gave that impression.

  81. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon,
    I don’t have an interest in perpetuating a disagreement. The use of entropy to describe the thermodynamics of molecular biology of today does not have applications of entropy before the 1800’s does it? Neither were ‘molecular systems’ known at that time. Neither was atomic theory sufficiently developed at that time to explain molecular systems. That is the period of ‘devising’ entropy that I refer to. Molecular biology was a much later development.

  82. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee,
    Entropy has always been a word used in science as a metric of disorder.

    I would never disagree with you argumentatively. And if I am coming across that way, I certainly ask your forgiveness.

    To be clear. I am loyal to the Church. And whether or not this is healthy my loyalty goes in this order: the eucharist, my priest, his parish, the bishop, Christ, and I am not sure what to say after that. There’s just too much I am ignorant of. For that reason, I wouldn’t do or say anything to disrupt that hierarchy. However, inside myself, I have a conscience and I desire the freedom to hold that conscience with integrity. Hopefully I am vigilant to stay within that boundary.

  83. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Blessings on all! I’m off to an early bedtime – in order to get up early for the Liturgy tomorrow. It’s interesting to me, in that our conversation is quite international lately. While I’m sleeping, some of you are just getting up and starting a new day. So, I get up in the morning and see what the conversation has done overnight. I am reminded, as well, that wars lie across the land in many places – with many innocent people in harm’s way. May the Lord preserve them and protect them! And have mercy on us all.

  84. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon,
    Entropy is now explained using terms such as order versus disorder, and this is how I teach it, as you describe it.

    However, when Clausius first introduced the word entropy, he was working with the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and his work (unless my memory is off) didn’t involve the terms order or disorder or use them as a way to explain entropy. He merely attempted to explain heat transfer and energy loss in mechanical systems. However, as simple as I made that sound, it had profound implications.

    I’m not in the least questioning your commitment to Christ or to His Church. If I what I wrote suggested that, I am deeply sorry.

    As for myself, there has never been a sort of contest between the science I conduct and my faith. But my science has been informed by a different culture than is typical in the West. Some Native American people describe such a process of being a scientist and Native American as being “two-eyed”. However, when I hear those terms used, it suggests they attempt to operate in two worlds. I’m unable to do that psychologically. I would seem as though I would try to do somersaults with my mind. However if I attempt to use the words “two-eyed,” I would mean something different. It would mean for me that I hope and pray to operate with 3D vision, having such depth to perceive things going on that would be more difficult to see without it.

    And when my students express their anxieties about such things, I do my best to alleviate their concerns, which is all I intended in my post to Father Stephen. While I might attempt to address such concerns, specifically, on this blog, I’m not attempting to take a position with or against anyone else on this blog. Rather I offer a view that my students tell me is helpful to them. So I offered it here. I, too, prefer to stay within the bounds of Orthodox theology (with my priest confessor and spiritual father’s help), and it seems that I don’t have difficulty doing while doing the mental and physical work of a scientist. Whatever I have for ‘freedom’ isn’t something I attend to closely. I pray for the Lord’s words, His bread and help in all things.

  85. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I’m a featherweight amid the faith/science dialogue, but my humble perspective is that each must purify the other. Reigning scientific paradigms shift (and are shifting). I believe consciousness studies are currently opening some, maybe many, skeptical scientific minds to the possibility of something more than mere physicalism. Likewise, theology evolves – yes, even in Orthodoxy, though at a snail’s pace compared to many Christians. This resistance to change is a good thing, normally, because it preserves those tools which actually work. Except when it’s not a good thing, as in those cases of brittle literalism. I actually think Orthodoxy has the best chance to absorb innovative scientific discovery because of its apophatic flex. Metaphor has the stubborn power to resist both proof and disproof. Symbolic, spiritual reading has saved my faith more than once. This is not a “god of the gaps” defense, such that whatever new evidence which might seem to contradict our beliefs has a ready answer; rather it’s a confession of an ineffable mystery, seen through a glass darkly, to which every shard of truth, scientific or otherwise, gives us clearer access.

  86. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, do you think Repentance and Confession has an impact on entropy?

  87. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Wow, Michael, that’s an interesting question.

    If our entrance into communion with Christ impacts the cosmos as we are given to believe by the Fathers, and since repentance and confession allow us to have communion with Christ, I would have to say yes. But undoubtedly, this involves the work of the Holy Spirit (or of Providence), not something we might actualize or compel by our will. But given particular circumstances of our need or illumination, we might ask it of the Lord, depending on what circumstances of entropy we are concerned about.

    If in this response I have been too provocative I ask for forgiveness.

  88. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dino. It seems that however death seeped into our world, God does make good things out of it. Resurrection is the greatest example that comes to mind, but also a leaf that decays becoming some sort of nurishment for the ground underneath it.

    As an aside, I have noticed in the comment sections a tendency by some to ask forgiveness after their response. Why is this? Should I be doing this?

    Dee … is repentance and confession the only way we come into communion with God, or the main way?

  89. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    We are indeed international Fr. Stephen! My hope is that many people from all parts of the globe will begin reading your blog and its comments.

  90. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I ask for forgiveness because I’m such a sinner; it’s hard to see through my passions and have confidence that I haven’t hurt someone. I don’t think it is necessary in this blog as if it is some sort of Orthodox etiquette. It’s that I am a real social blunderer.

    I answer your question about communion from my personal experience of ‘entrance into communion with Christ’. I’m sure you are aware I’m not a theologian, and as such, I should also encourage Father’s thoughts on this question.

    There are different but related senses or meanings of communion. The word communion may refer to receiving the Eucharist, or it may be communion in prayer, and these are not exclusive experiences although they may happen separately. To receive the Eucharist, I have repentance and confession and may receive healing through the actions of the Holy Spirit. On occasion, in prayer, I have communion with Christ without receiving the Eucharist therefore, in prayer, such communion is an action of the Holy Spirit. Usually, in the latter case, I’m in agony because of my sins and confess them in prayer and will later confess them to a priest before receiving the Eucharist.

    I don’t think of it as steps, i.e. first repent, then confess, then have communion. Rather, Christ calls and the heart says, ‘yes’ here I am, Lord. In awe of the Presence of Christ, we repent, and tears flow.

  91. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I should add to receive the Body and Blood of Christ is necessary for the life in Christ. But in prison camps in the Soviet Union, I don’t know whether the Eucharist was received. The saints can endure for some time without receiving the Eucharist. But communion in prayer is an often needful daily and ongoing occurrence for the saints. In Orthodoxy as far as I know the saints don’t see themselves as perfected. They repent and confess.

  92. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Matthew,
    I think we can rather confidently say from within a Traditional theological perspective that, God created creatures that inevitably partake of corruptible life, due to their ‘creaturliness’, but, simultaneously granted them the ‘eucharistic’ exchange of this corruptible life into His incorruptible life. Man would have not known of his corruptibility prior to the fall – because unceasing eucharistic communion with His lifegiver was his “default state by grace” – and this transformative communion of Man would extend and transform all things Man came into contact with (predators included). However, breaking this communion would mean a falling “back” into corruptibility, “a default state by nature”.
    However, the “knowledge” of death, made man interpret authentic love and kenotic sacrifice as a painful death too. But to the degree a saint is immersed in communion with Christ, he interprets sacrifice (sacrifice unto death) as life. Death as self-kenosis is life par excellence.
    If you read St Ignatius letter to Romans, this inverted logic takes on a myriad images for the saint, he clearly shows that for him, in unbreakable communion with Christ, this life is death, while death to this life to be with Christ is eternal paradisal life. Extrapolating from this logic one can see that all talk on entropy, corruptibility etc is rather lacking in the right nuance – Which St Ignatius lives to his very core while heading joyously towards martyrdom.

  93. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I was thinking (during the night) on the importance of a good conscience. Your “hierarchy” of loyalty points towards the paramount nature of these key relationships in your life – things that triumph, in many ways, over the bumpy road of ideas. When I think of certain key ideas in my life – really drill down into them – they have something of this character to them – something relational about them. I think particularly of the place of the goodness of God in that – it is like an anchor in my soul. Other things (ideas) can clash and become fuzzy for me – but that remains an essential (and is expressed especially in the resurrection of Christ).

    But the integrity of conscience is very important – essential. God can save us for who we are – but not who we pretend to be (I’ve seen meme’s to this effect a bit lately). Be well – stay strong.

  94. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dee and Dino.

    The main concepts I continue to struggle with are:

    1. Death to self being so important for real communion with God.
    2. The heavy focus on my sinfulness and the need for repentance.

    Sometimes I don´t feel much like a sinner and sometimes I need to take a break
    from others in order to focus on myself. These two issues seem to cut against the grain of what I am understanding are centrals tenants of classical Christianity (Orthodoxy). I emphasize “my understanding” because I may be interpreting what I am hearing and reading incorrectly.

  95. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Think of these things in terms of love. “Death to self” can also be understood as “love for others.” “Sinfulness” describes our life in terms of its selfishness – that we do not love sufficiently.

    Be patient with yourself. Love God. Love your neighbor.

    Here’s a wonderful list by the late Fr. T. Hopko, known as his “55 Maxims.” They describe the practical life of Orthodoxy better than any thing I’ve seen: https:55 Maxims.

  96. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. The list is a bit daunting! I could spend the rest of my life on just a few of the listed maxims. 🙂

    Interestingly, though, I don´t think I saw anything on the list about forgiving other people? Is that simply self evident?

  97. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen … how much love should we have for ourselves?

  98. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Am I supposed to be, like, “Oh woe is me … I have once again not loved enough – neither God nor my neighbor. So terrible. Forgive me Lord. AH … now I sense deeper communion with Him!” As I have said before, it seems so unhealthy.

    If I concentrate on the sin (the pink elephant), even sin as understood in Orthodox terms, then I see the sin (the pink elephant). Shouldn´t repentance be a turning (metanoia) toward that what is good (God´s love) so that I can learn how not to see the pink elephant?

    Currently I don´t believe I have to think about sin so much. All it does it make me feel terrible. Is such thinking too Protestant for Orthodox sensibilities?

  99. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, thank you for your answer. Among other things, it expand my understanding of entropy. It made me realize that there is much more to it and I got to looking at my icon wall. Even though I am Antiochian, most of the saints are modern Russian Saints, like St. Luke, the Surgeon. But also St. Moses, the Ethiopian. AND I also have on the table in front a wood carving of a bear done by one the greatest Native American artist of the 20th Century, J. L. Clarke. My great aunt picked it up in her travels.
    I also have the Synaxis of the Archangels and many others. Also one of St. Michael, the Archangel holding a “globe of souls” for whom He is praying.

    When it comes to Communion and it’s Mystery, I tend to agree with Hamlet: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    At the heart of it all seems to be a great Joy for all of Creation, despite my fallenness. The icon, “More Spacious Than the Heavens” in which Blessed Mary sits with an infant Jesus, both with arms out stretched welcoming all. This icon is above many Orthodox Altars around the world.

  100. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen,
    I have never seen God revealed in ideas, but I have seen the Wisdom of God revealed in a priest. My priest is my icon of Christ. Perhaps to one degree or another that is true of all priests.

    Certain theological concepts act as mortar to the hierarchy I described. I try to delve into those when I am able. It scaffolds a nascent metaphysical lense. I hate to admit it…but I think Owen is right…

    I also really appreciate what you said about the goodness of God as an anchor.

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