The Problem of Feel Good Spirituality: A Robust Anthropology


IMG_0254It’s popular in some spiritual circles to act as though humans are just slightly flawed (if that) and that our little missteps are just that; little. One little writing from yesterday by Mark Sandlin of “The God Article” perfectly sums up this “feel good spirituality.” To make matters worse, Sandlin is a pastor and was his blog was named one of the top 10 Christian blogs out there. Yet, his advice is that we’re not broken, not fallen, not sinful, just a work in progress. But his argument not only misses what Christianity actually teaches, it misses the human experience.

A theology of, “You’re not broken or fallen” might work for the average middle-class person of Western Society who’s never faced the evils of this life, who has the luxury of believing that this world is soft, but for the rest of the world such a theology is astonishingly ignorant. A woman drugged and then raped can’t look at the rapist and say that he’s, …”so deeply invested in life that [he] can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.” Such a theological viewpoint doesn’t really address the carnage of this world and truly makes Christianity a “pie in the sky” religion. It ignores the realities on the ground, that people are murdered, that people are cheated, that evil occurs at the hands of these so-called “investors in life.” A man who murders women and children hasn’t missed the point, a CEO who cuts his employee’s salaries so he can increase in wealth isn’t invested in life, and a mother who looks to her own interests before the interests of her children isn’t misguided by love; such things are sinful and are evil. Superfluous evil does occur and that it occurs is central to the Christian message.

The flaw in such humanism is that it ignores reality. Just as a belief that humans are totally depraved and nothing good can come from us looks too much at our sin, Sandlin’s view doesn’t look at our sin enough. The flaw between both views is they can’t accept the paradox of humanity, that we are capable of both great good and great evil, often from the same person. Stalin wasn’t invested in life when he ordered the deaths of millions, he didn’t just temporarily ignore the greater good.

A great quote from the movie Spanglish is when the grandmother addresses her daughter, who’s been cheating on her husband and acting selfishly. The grandmother says, “Lately, your low self-esteem is just good common sense.” It’s not that we ought to think of ourselves as dirt, but that sometimes we shouldn’t esteem ourselves. Sometimes our problems are our own doing. Sometimes we have to admit that we are actually broken, that we are fallen, and that we are sinful. After all, that is central to any Christian message lest Christ’s Incarnation be pointless.

Christianity does teach that as humans we are fallen. While some take it too far to say we are guilty or sinful by nature of being human, even within the Orthodox tradition the belief is that our wills are fallen. From birth our wills are turned from God. We freely choose to run away from him, to act on our own, and as such beget more evil into this world. This doesn’t make us evil by nature, but it does make us evil by choice. If Christianity left the story there, it still wouldn’t be wrong; how absurd to deny the one absolute, empirical, unquestionable fact of Christianity, that we are fallen and sinful. Thankfully, the Christian story doesn’t end with us being fallen.

A robust view of humans is that though fallen, by nature we are good. What that means is that we are made in God’s image, that is what separates us from the animals. God, of course, is good; therefore his image is also good. Sin is any act that goes against our nature and intended purpose, that is, sin is anything contrary to God and goodness. We choose to engage in sin and become sinners (we are not sinners by nature, as this creates quite a few problems with the Incarnation). As such, we are fallen, we are broken, and we do need to be saved. God the Word took on human flesh and took on our nature while retaining his own and redeemed our nature. To quote St. Athanasius, “God became man so that men might become gods.” The point being that Christ paved the way for us to not only reunify with our Creator (through Theosis), against whom we rebelled, but that we might actualize our nature of good and live holy lives.

Salvation and the necessity to live holy lives makes absolutely no sense without sin. While I believe the fall of man was not necessary – Christ could have shown his love to us even in a perfect world, albeit in a different way – it did happen and therefore this is the world we’ve inherited and in which we abide. We are broken and we do need help. Such an admission is a sign of tenacious humility, the kind needed for salvation. To say that we’re not flawed or broken is not just ignorance of the world around us, but a form of arrogance to say that we just need God’s help a little, that we’ve got it from here. But the greatest of saints had one thing in common, that they constantly sought after God’s help and realized they were nothing without him.

We do the world no favors if we try to remove the idea of sin and brokenness from our language and theology, for to do so makes Christians look even more out of touch with reality. Evil occurs and in order to understand the greatness of what Christ did, we must understand the breadth of the darkness into which Light came. Only by acknowledging the dark can we then begin to seek and appreciate the Light.

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Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part One)


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/  Apophaticism is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is the first of a two part series designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /   

Apophatic theology, within the Christian tradition, is grounded in the Incarnation–the mystery of the eternally begotten Word made flesh and born of the Virgin Mary.  It is this paradigmatic paradox that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.  In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.

This antinomy is most clearly expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel which proclaims that, “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18); and affirmed also by St. Paul who states that Christ is, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).  Thus, the Incarnation is at once God’s ultimate and most intimate revelation of Himself to His creation and a fixed reminder of the mysterious and ineffable nature of the God who remains unseen and invisible.

As we shall see Christian apophaticism is not synonymous to agnosticism; it is not an attempt to eradicate positive statements about God or deny our personal experience of God (as some believe).  Aristotle Papanikolaou explains that, “there is always a gap between our language about God and what God is.  In an apophatic approach, theology, attempts to stretch language in order to express the central antinomy revealed in the Incarnation–God’s transcendence and immanence.”  Apophaticism is, therefore, an acknowledgment of the complete transcendence and utter incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature and the humble admission that human beings lack the noetic capacities and linguistic tools needed to grasp or properly communicate the infinite, eternal, Godhead.  Furthermore, it is the acknowledgment that God loves His creation and condescends to make Himself known in spite of our limited capacities.

This fact–the radical ontological distinction between the creature and the Creator, the unknowability of God’s essence, and God’s desire to make Himself known–is vividly portrayed in the account of Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament.  Scripture tells us that:

On the third day in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and all the people in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed . . . and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Then God spoke to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, lest they break through to gaze at God, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).*

In this passage we see that God, in his unfailing love and desire for communion–and in order to initiate a covenant with Israel–manifested His presence in a physically provocative way; thus condescending to our human nature.  Yet what God is, His essence, is symbolized by the impenetrable cloud of darkness, thick smoke, and fire; for God is invisible and His nature a mystery.  His presence, if directly beheld by man, is so overwhelming that God warns Moses not to let the people ascend the mountain lest they gaze directly upon Him and die.

The inadequacy of creaturely language–with regard to its ability to describe God–becomes even more obvious as we read Moses’ own account of his experience on the mountain in the presence of God in chapter thirty-three:

But He [God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.”  Moreover, the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).*

For surely the Divine Nature is not a body–possessing hands and a face–but is incorporeal.  Our language is simply unable to explain that which transcends all creaturely categories; thus, Moses, writing metaphorically, speaks of God having a ‘face’ and ‘hands’ and a ‘back.’  As the Lord Himself declares in this passage, “no man can see My face and live”–which is to say that no man can peer into the very essence of God; this knowledge is too great for us.  Yet, mysteriously, God allows Moses to experience Him indirectly; allowing him to see His “back.”  This, itself, is unhelpful for those who seek to understand what God is because there is know way for us to understand what it means to gaze upon the Lord’s back.  Here, again, human language fails us; Moses’ own experience was virtually indescribable (even to himself).

The stark contrast that we find in these passages and, throughout the Bible, between the creature and the Creator, are exactly what led the earliest Christian theologians to promote apophaticism.  For the Greek philosophers (namely those in the stream of Platonic and Aristotelian thought) believed that being or existence could be grasped by the human intellect and explained using purely human categories.  Christians, however, embracing the ontology of Scripture, recognized that Existence Himself, the great “I AM,” stood outside of all creaturely thought.  As Fr. John D. Zizioulas explains:

The message of apophatic theology was precisely that the closed Greek ontology had to be broken and transcended, since we are unable to use concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God–the truth.  The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner that the biblical approach to God contrasts acutely with that of the Greeks.  Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God.

Plato’s famous analogy of the cave makes the difference between Greek and Christian thought explicit.  For in Plato’s account truth can be grasped when we stop looking at the mere shadow of being on the wall–i.e., the imperfect copies of eternal forms–climb out of the cave, and fix our gaze directly on the sun–the good;  the immaterial and immutable realm of the forms; the, “cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything”  In Plato’s ontology, gazing directly at the good is possible through purely human intellectual effort.  In contrast, Christian theology teaches that the Good transcends all human distinctions and categories; the Good is completely other and, hence, unknowable by means of purely human effort.  For the Good says, “no man can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).*

Such considerations are what spurred Pseudo-Dionysius, that great champion of apophatic theology to proclaim:

Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.  Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being.  Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.  It is and it is as no other being is.  Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the Orthodox Study Bible which utilizes the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).  Therefore, the chapter and verse numbering might not correspond to those found in translations, e.g., ESV, NIV, KJV, etc., which utilize the oldest available Hebrew and Aramaic texts.

Previously posted on Truth is a Man (in a slightly different format)

Victoria’s Secret and the Steubenville Rape or, How Honoring Mary Can End Objectification


The_Annunciation_by_logIconVictoria’s Secret has announced its attempt to corner the pre-teen market. Of course, it isn’t simply producing simple undergarments, but instead has decided to “sexualize” preteens. The CFO even said that the new line is targeted at young teenage girls to make them feel as cool as college girls. This new line has panties that have “Call me” on them and “Feeling Lucky?” written on them. According to the CFO of Victoria’s Secret, then, we’re left believing that one must be sexual in order to be cool. Essentially, this company is targeting young girls who already suffer from self-image problems, have pressure to fit in, and have added hormones to boot all in an attempt to make a buck. It’s sexualizing young girls, which doesn’t empower them, but instead objectifies them.

Think of what occurred at Steubenville, Ohio. Young boys who thought they could do what they wanted to a girl because they were athletes and she was (allegedly) drunk. What is quite sickening about the whole ordeal is how their peers, both male and female, essentially normalized such an act. They quickly passed around pictures of the act, becoming instant paparazzi, yet somehow worse. They became gossip columnists not concerned at all with the victim, but just being part of a good story in which someone was deeply humiliated. The young victim was not a human, had no feelings, but was merely an object; she became nothing more than an object for sexual gratification to these young boys, but was objectified a second time by the community as nothing more than a form of entertainment. Yet, to make matters worse, she became an object by the national media as the catalyst for ruining these “young men’s” lives. CNN stands out as an example of a news agency that further objectified the victim by focusing on the young boy’s. Granted, while we ought to feel sick that these young boys have thrown their lives away, or at least drastically changed the courses of their future, we should not sympathize with them. However, CNN chose to sympathize with them while ignoring the victim. In the end, the boys, her immediate community, and even the national community objectified the victim.

Yet, should we be so shocked and surprised that rape victims are objectified in such a manner? After all, even today people commonly make arguments justifying rape, saying that provocative clothing or flirtatious actions can confuse a male into acting on his sexual urges. Some, like CNN, went out of their way to point out that the girl was supposedly drunk, as though that matters. In essence, we have created a culture where we expect women to be sexualized, we expect them to dress a certain way or they’re the butt of jokes on television and in the movies, we expect them to act a certain way or we call them prudish. In short, we have forced women to become sexual objects, arguing that this actually gives them power (it doesn’t), encouraged and normalized sexual activity, but then we’re surprised when people are desensitized to rape and further objectify women. But this shouldn’t shock us, mostly because as a culture we’ve raped the essence of womanhood. We’ve forced women into a position where they are nothing more than sexualized objects, ready for the taking. Of course, we’ve done the same thing with men as well, normalized to the point that any male that is still a virgin at the age of 18 is seen as a freak and an anomaly.

The sexual revolution, rather than freeing our sexuality, did quite the opposite by objectifying it and thus enslaving our sexuality. Anyone would tell you that sex is more than just the act, but also what comes before it, the flirting, the seduction, the chase. All of this, of course, is natural and quiet healthy within its natural limits. But when we tell young men that they are nothing more than sexual beings who’s job is to go out and have fun and we turn around and say the same thing to young women, should we be shocked when objectification happens and rape results? We’ve already robbed them of any true meaning in existence, so objectification logically follows.

For Christians, we can look to Mary, or the Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer”), or in the English translation of the name, the Mother of God. For many Protestants, such a name may cause some cringing, but the name does make sense. After all, Jesus is both human and God. He is fully divine and fully human, partaking in both the Divine nature and the human nature. As Christians, we believe that a human comes into existence at conception. Since Jesus is God and Mary held Christ in her womb, it is appropriate to say that Mary is the Mother of God; it is not appropriate to say she is the mother of the Divine nature, but she is the mother of Christ’s human nature. But since Christ cannot be divided we cannot say that she is the mother of Jesus in a sense; she is Jesus’ mother and that makes her the mother of God. Through her, salvation came into the world. Through her intercessions, Christ’s first miracle occurred and His ministry began. Through her tears, she was given over to John the Apostle as his mother and subsequently as our own mother. Finally, she is the first evangelist, the first person to proclaim that Christ was raised from the grave. Through Mary, Christ was brought into the world, His ministry began, and the good news of His resurrection was brought to the world. So Mary is very important in the Christian faith.

Mary, in the view of Christianity, is womanhood perfected. When one understands the importance of Mary to Christ and subsequently the world, one also understands the importance of women to the world. Mary displayed more strength, honor, and independence than any modern secular feminist could conjure up. When the angels came to her and said that she would give birth to our Salvation, she did not lament her position, but instead rejoiced. She lived in a time where an unwed (or even engaged) pregnant woman faced being ostracized and kicked out of society. But she first focused on the joy of the news. Ever present throughout the life of Christ, she was there for His first miracle of turning water into wine. Not only was she there, but she interceded and convinced Him to perform the miracle. She was also present for the death of her Son, laying at the cross while others mocked Him. The strength and honor of Mary is something that all women (and men) should strive to achieve.

But notice how not once did she have to rely on her sexuality. In order to have strength and honor, she did not become some sexualized object. In fact, every Church Father contends she remained a virgin after having Christ (not because sex is somehow evil or wrong, but because she was prophesied to remain solely in the service of the Lord). Many women in the Church followed Mary’s example of becoming very powerful, respectful, and independent without relying on sexualization.

Mary is, in many ways, the new Eve. Whereas Eve had disobeyed God, Mary obeyed God. Whereas Eve encouraged Adam to sin, Mary encouraged the New Adam, Christ, to holiness. Whereas Eve attempted to usurp Adam, Mary served in obedience to the New Adam. Where as eve became the first objectified woman, becoming the object of blame from Adam, Mary became the first redeemed woman, becoming blessed through accepting God into her womb. How, then, can we objectify women when they share a commonality with the Mother of God? How can we look at what Victoria’s Secret is doing to young girls and say, “Well, they just want to be cool like the college girls so it’s no big deal?” The reality is, the college girls have only bought into a form of objectification and thus we’ve created a vicious cycle. There’s nothing wrong with a wife or a husband wearing things that the spouse may enjoy. But when we take these things out of their context, we treat the person as nothing more than a sexual object; we de-personify them. This is the breeding ground for rape.

We should instead teach our young ladies (and young men) to look to Mary as the penultimate female. Here is a woman who gave up sexual desires in order to serve God. While celibacy is not a higher calling than marriage (see St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on marriage), it is still a high calling. But the highest calling is obedience to God, and Mary certainly obeyed God. We shouldn’t teach our young women to treat older, thinner, “sexier” college girls as role models. There is no empowerment for women found in objectification; when you serve the needs of man, even if you do so freely, you are still a slave. Mary, however, was free. She freely submitted to God and followed Him all her days. She is what every woman should be, someone who freely obeys and worships God. And every man should treat every woman as though she were Mary, for she is a daughter of Mary. Every man should treat every woman with the respect due to her, not by exploiting her sexuality, but by protecting it. In many cases, this is as simple as refusing to look at the woman as a sexual object, but instead to look upon her as a person (as who she really is).

Thus, we deplore Victoria’s Secret for encouraging young girls to give up who they are in the pursuit of a false image. We deplore even more a culture that celebrates the objectification of women and calls it “empowerment.” We reject this culture, this culture of rape, that first rapes the essence of womanhood and then rapes the woman. Instead, we turn to the holy Theotokos, pray that we might all learn from her, and submit to God as she did. We pray that in this submission we will find our true nature and realize our sexuality within that nature. We pray that in our submission we will find our freedom.

 

On Lent and Pascha or, Lent As an Icon


IMG_0482The Western Church has already entered the Lenten season and the Eastern Church has just begun its journey, yet in many ways the congregants have been on a Lenten journey their entire lives. If we boil it down, Lent is an icon for our present life. Lent requires us to sacrifice certain aspects of our dietary preferences to instill a type of self-discipline. At the same time, Lent works to focus our attention on our sin and guilt before God, all in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection (Easter or Pascha).

The ancient Israelites held to a strict diet to reflect that God chose them. Contrary to popular belief, this diet doesn’t really have many health benefits (it does compared to modern dietary habits, but that’s mostly due to everything being real food as opposed to chemically enhanced and genetically modified food). The dietary restrictions existed as a type of self-discipline, as something small to be faithful in so that they could be faithful in bigger things. The Mosaic dietary law, or the pre-Christ fast, lasted up until Christ. One Christ fulfilled the Law there was no need for the dietary restrictions; Christ had come into our world and redeemed everything. We were set apart and chosen as God’s adopted children through the sign of the cross and by partaking in His blood and body. We could celebrate by eating all that God put before us.

Of course, if Christ ended the Hebraic fast then why do we continue with a Lenten fast? Because just like the Hebraic fast, the Lenten fast is not solely for self-discipline. Rather, both bring to mind the idea that while we are on this earth, we suffer. In other words, this present life is a type of Lent, one in which we must work to obtain self-discipline, but one that also begets suffering. Thought Christ is risen from the dead, we are not, at least not yet. We fast as a reminder that we are still enduring a Lent. That’s the beauty of Christianity, it is steeped in paradox; we ended the Hebraic fast because Christ came, we fast in self-discipline now because Christ is here, and we fast as a reminder of suffering because Christ will come.

In the course of life, we are birthed from two wombs. One womb is that of our mother. We grow in her and eventually come into this world. The second womb is the earth; we all die and eventually find our way back to the earth (whether through burial or the spreading of ashes). At the resurrection we escape the womb of this earth into the eternal life to come. Lent, therefore, serves as an icon for these wombs and preparation for them.

In the first womb, a fetus will kick his legs, move his arms, and even move his mouth. None of this is vastly beneficial within that womb. However, it prepares the fetus for birth, it prepares him for skills he will need once he is in this world. Within this world, as he grows, he learns certain ethical standards. Many of these standards help him to get along in this life, but others don’t bring vast benefits within this life. These commands, however, prepare him for the life to come. While he is in the womb of the present, he learns the self-discipline necessary that will benefit him in the life to come. Lent serves as an icon for this struggle in that it teaches us to obtain self-discipline by abstaining from certain foods; the foods aren’t evil, but the practice benefits us.

It is what comes after Lent, the celebration of Pascha, that also prepares us for the life to come. The feast that we engage in isn’t just for the now, isn’t just so we can enjoy meat and wine after not tasting it for a few weeks. It’s to prepare us for the ultimate feast, where we will no longer suffer under the Lenten season that is life, but instead shall bask in an eternal celebration of Pascha. Lent is an icon of our present life, while Pascha is an icon of the life to come.

In our current Lent, we are forced to abstain from life. We suffer from disease, deformities, and a whole host of ailments. Our sin forces us into this fast from true life. We war with each other and even against our own nature. We must take on a somber attitude in many places because of how fallen our world is.

We await the Paschal feast, the one that shall never end. We await the day when Lent is no longer necessary because we have been birthed into the new life. We await the day when the disabled must no longer partake in the fast of this life, the fast that prevents them from wholeness, but instead shall run to the eternal Paschal feast. We look forward to the time when the hungry will feast, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the poor shall be rich, the oppressed shall be liberated, the fatherless shall have a family, the rejected shall find acceptance, and the sinner will be made a saint. Just as we look forward to the Pascha feast throughout our Lenten season, let us be reminded that though we are in the Lent of life, we should also look forward to the eternal Pascha that is to come.

“Forgive me, a sinner” and Other Thoughts on Forgiveness Vespers


forgive_sunday_icon1“Forgive me, a sinner.”

By the end of the evening, I had said this and had it said to me nearly one hundred times. One would think the repeated nature of the phrase would numb you to its initial impact. Instead, I found myself contemplating the very importance of this humble request. I found myself contemplating how many marriages could be saved by this phrase, how many friendships could be rescued, how many conflicts could be brought to peace if this phrase became more commonplace in our vernacular. Instead of being numb to the phrase after its repeated use, I was broken. Thus concludes my first experience of Forgiveness Vespers.

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I have been on a journey towards Orthodoxy for a number of years now (someday I’ll write about it). Though I am not a communicant, nor am I catechumen, I have been on a very slow journey towards the Orthodox Church. While I have kept this semi-hidden, especially on this site, I fail to see the purpose in hiding it much longer. Sadly, I held a job for a while that prevented me from attending services until recently, especially at night. Thus, though I’ve been moving in the direction of Orthodoxy for a number of years, tonight was the first Forgiveness Vespers I was able to attend.

Forgiveness Vespers (or “Cheesefare”) is the last liturgical day before the Great Lent. For those unfamiliar with the Eastern Church, they run on a different calendar. Thus, while Lent began in the Western Church a few weeks ago, Lent for the Orthodox begins tomorrow (and our Pascha, or “Easter” celebration will occur in May). For both the East and the West, Lent functions for the same purpose, to draw on the seriousness of our sinful condition before God and what He accomplished to rescue us from this condition. The fast serves as a means to teach self-discipline and reflect on God. But before all this must come forgiveness from each other. After all, during Lent we seek forgiveness from God, but how can we hypocritically do so if we fail to seek forgiveness from one another first?

Forgiveness Vespers, thus, is the time when we ask for forgiveness for our sins. I attended All Saints Orthodox Church, a place that is quickly becoming a home, and enjoyed what Fr. Nicholas said when instructing us on what to say. He said we would go up to each other and say, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and would respond with the same. We would not say “Yeah, of course I forgive you” because only God can forgive. By both people asking for forgiveness, both people were on equal ground.

Midway through the liturgy we began to move out into the aisles and began to prostrate ourselves before Christ, coming before Him for forgiveness. It was a very somber moment, reflecting on my own sins and the pain they brought not only to Christ, but to the world.

Then Fr. Nicholas gave us the instructions, stood at the front, and crossed himself as he said, “Forgive me, a sinner.” Then Deacon David went before Fr. Nicholas and said, “Forgive me, a sinner” with Fr. Nicholas responding “Forgive me, a sinner.” Both men embraced and Deacon David stood next to Fr. Nicholas. That’s when the procession started, with people forming a line and going up to Fr. Nicholas, going through the ritual of forgiveness, moving onto the next person, then the next person, and finally taking their respective spots in line. Thus, everyone asked for forgiveness from every person present when it was all said and done.

It was interesting for me, to see the familiarity that people had with each other. For some, it was hard not to laugh at the complete awkwardness of the situation. And I think this is good; if you can laugh while asking for forgiveness and the other person laughs as well, it shows there is no bitterness between the people. If it’s awkward to ask for forgiveness because familiarity breeds awkwardness, then all the better, for forgiveness has already occurred. But for me, where almost everyone there is a stranger to me and I’m a stranger to them, it was humbling. While others were laughing or giggling at the awkward nature of what was going on, I was fighting back a lump in my throat, completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I was experiencing. It was so odd, so foreign, so different from anything I had done before; it was beautiful.

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Having grown up with a Protestant background (Southern Baptist), I can safely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of church splits, politics, and battles. I’ve seen men almost get into yelling matches over the placement of a light pole, or over the color the walls of the church should be (and I somehow suspect that this happens just as often in the Orthodox parishes). But I’ve also seen more serious divisions, divisions over doctrine, divisions over sexual indiscretions. In these divisions no one was willing to admit fault, no one was willing to seek forgiveness or offer forgiveness.

Growing up Southern Baptist, politics within the church was simply a given. After all, the SBC convention actually has a “Committee on Committees,” that is, they have a committee that is dedicated to forming committees. This is not a joke, it actually exists. So within the Southern Baptist life, it’s easy to become accustomed to infighting, and it’s even seen as necessary.

Sadly, the SBC has always been a place of vicious infighting, especially recently. First, the conservative resurgence fought against the liberal hardliners and moderate theologians. Men actively went after the reputations and livelihood of fellow believers. In our more recent history there has been a growing divide over Calvinists and nonCalvinists, with the debates becoming more heated and the division becoming greater.

Thus, seeing all these people within the church walk around and ask for forgiveness was a thing of beauty to me. I’ve never seen anything like that. It requires humility to ask for forgiveness, especially when strife exists. To ask for forgiveness, rather than to say, “you are forgiven,” is to say, “I am the one at fault, not you, so please forgive me.” When both people ask for forgiveness, there is no need to say, “You are forgiven,” for both have admitted fault. I truly believe that if this were practiced more in Protestant churches, there wouldn’t be so many divisions.

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I stood there as a circle slowly began to form within the church, watching people embrace and ask for forgiveness. I wiped away tears as I began to think of how much the world needed this. What if we took a group of Palestinians and Israelis, put them in a room, and had them do this? Obviously, this is just a thought experiment. But what if they truly asked for forgiveness, not offered forgiveness, bust asked for it? Would that lay a sufficient foundation for peace talks? What if we took those who struggle with race relations and did the same? What if we took conservatives and liberals? What if we took those in strife and showed them the importance of asking for forgiveness?

But isn’t that the core of Christianity? What is it to put aside your own pride and ask for forgiveness? That is inherently an act of humility. Humility is self-giving, it is self-sacrificial. Humility is an act of love. To ask for forgiveness, then, one must love, which is the core of Christianity. In the Kingdom of God forgiveness will not be necessary, for we will be holy as God is holy living in perfect union with each other, but the seeking of forgiveness from one another is what will beget the Kingdom of God. In many ways, in that little circle, I stepped into the ever-present future Kingdom. But it shouldn’t just exist within that circle, rather it should extend to all the world.

When we talk about forgiveness we typically talk about giving forgiveness to those who have harmed us. And we should forgive those who have harmed us. But what I noticed is that Forgiveness Vespers put an emphasis on asking for forgiveness. It is easy to forgive, but harder to ask for forgiveness and truly mean it. It puts one in a humiliating position, because you must admit that you were wrong. Asking for forgiveness is hard because it requires you to love someone enough that you’re willing to cast aside any ounce of pride you have.

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This act of humility exists so that the world might be saved, for sin can only be combatted by humility. This is why Forgiveness Vespers precedes Lent, a season where we reflect on our sin. Only by first humbling ourselves can we enter the Lenten season prepared to face our sins and overcome them.

As I walked out into the cool evening air, I felt better prepared to face what is to come. I had just asked many people, most of whom are strangers to me, to forgive me of my sins. I acknowledged to them that I was a sinner. And now we walk away, better prepared for the fast, better prepared to reflect on the death we have brought into our lives. And in this humility, we can eventually come to accept the victory that Christ has brought over this death, so that one day we shall never again have to ask for forgiveness, for we will be holy as He is holy.

Theanthropic Ethics and Secular Humanism: How ‘Theosis’ Can Deal With Modern Critiques of Christian Ethics


(This is a rough draft of a concept and defense I’ve been working on. I hope to turn this into a full article at some point. I post it here for feedback.)

Though modern humanists have attempted to cast doubt both on God’s goodness and whether or not His goodness begets an ethical ought, one can know via deductive reasoning that God is good and from His goodness derive a moral ought (found in the theological concept of theosis). The philosopher Stephen Law, as recently as 2009, issued what he called the “Evil-God Challenge,” stating that theists have no rational position to assume that God is good. Along the same lines, Kai Nielsen argues that Christians lack sufficient reasons to label God good; Nielsen takes the argument further to state that even if it were shown that God was good, such a statement would carry no moral ought with it. In contradiction to both claims, it is seen that one can know via deductive reasoning that God is good. Likewise, in knowing that God is good, Christianity points to theosis as the ought derived from the statement, “God is good.”

The Issue at Hand

From the view of the humanist, theistic ethics, specifically Christian ethics, seems to be without justification for both its belief that God is good and that one ought to follow the divine commands of God. The humanist argues that one must know God is good before accepting His commands, but in order to know that God is good, one must utilize a standard external to God – ‘God is good’ does not necessarily follow from ‘God is powerful’ or ‘God is perfect’.[1] In doing so, the theist concedes that the moral foundation of goodness is found in human reasoning and not in God, for God must be evaluated.

However, the Christian would be wise to argue that knowing God is good logically follows from a belief in God; if something finite exists then God is good as anything finite requires a creator. The claim is seemingly self-evident, meaning to question the claim borders on delusion. Just as it is self-evidently known to a person that he is conscious, so too should it self-evidently be known that if God exists and there is a creation, He is good.

Furthermore, since Christians believe that humans are made in the image of God, it follows that if God is good then humans are to be good as well. One can take this even further to read that not only should humans be good, but also they should be good as God is good (i.e. humans should be morally perfect). Christianity teaches that such moral perfection, or holiness or righteousness, is found in the act of theosis.

Definitions

Before continuing, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by some terms that will be used to support the thesis. To understand the term theosis, one can use Donald Fairbairn’s definition that theosis is, “…[T]he process by which human beings are made, in some sense, divine.”[2] Of course, as Fairbairn points out later in the same paragraph, in the process of becoming divine there is still a clear distinction between humans and God; one becomes divine while still remaining human, or one becomes like God in all things except essence and being. Drawing from St. Maximus the Confessor, theosis is the idea that God becomes incarnate within the individual, allowing the person to be morally perfect as God is morally perfect.[3]

Theosis begins with virtue ethics, the idea that one’s inner disposition must be changed in order to change one’s outer actions. According to Peter Kreeft, “…[V]irtue means, the power of anything to accomplish its specific function…Presently, virtue also signifies moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the conformity of one’s life to the moral law; uprightness; rectitude.”[4] Thus, the idea of theosis rests upon the implied belief within virtue theory that there is a grand function to human life, or a telos, and the call of all humans is to live up to that telos. Virtue, however, is different from theosis in that while virtue makes humans better humans, theosis makes them divine.

Finally, one should understand that when the term “humanist” is used, it is meant to read “secular humanist.” For the sake of redundancy and space, however, it is safest to shorten the term and simply clarify it. While a Christian can be a humanist – and should be a humanist – Christian humanism, while loving humans, recognizes God as properly above humans. Secular humanism, however, seeks to bring man to great heights without acknowledging God; in short, secular humanism refers to anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, or finds God’s existence irrelevant to anthropic ethics.

Theanthropic Ethics

Before understanding the ought from theanthropic ethics, it is first important to understand that God is good. One must understand that God is wholly good and not imperfectly good, or good with a little bit of evil. God is a whole and must be perfect. To use the language of Robert Spitzer, since God is the unconditioned reality (nothing precedes Him), by logical necessity God must be simple (not composed) and perfect (lacking in nothing).[5] Since God is perfect, He must either be good or evil, and wholly so. He cannot be both (as this would violate the law of non-contradiction).

Therefore, if God were evil then He would be perfectly evil. Were one to treat evil as a substance (which is difficult to imagine), one would ask what is at the core of all evil acts. Through a simple use of deductions, one would easily arrive at the conclusion that pride is at the core of all evil acts.[6] Yet, pride can still be used in some good ways when it is used in moderation. In its extreme, however, pride is motivated by narcissism, or extreme love of the self. The more narcissistic a person is, the more apathetic he is to those around him. Narcissism requires the love of the self to the exclusion of all others. A narcissistic mother does not torture her baby; rather she neglects the baby if the baby interferes with the mother’s desires. Therefore, if God were evil He would be the ultimate narcissist.

If God were the ultimate narcissist, then nothing would exist; since something exists, it shows that God is not a narcissist and therefore God is not evil. If the root of evil is narcissism and narcissism is the focus on the self to the exclusion of others, and if God were wholly perfect in all things, then God would be too focused on Himself to have ever created anything to begin with. Yet, something exists. Therefore, God is not evil, which apophatically means God is good.

Since God is good and has created humans in His image, He has called humans to live a theanthropic life. The theanthropic life (or theanthropic ethics) is one where an individual human lives as God. It is the constant act of prayer, contemplation, action on that contemplation, and the petition of the soul to wholly trust in God.[7] Theanthropic ethics goes beyond natural ethics, teaching that the ultimate good, or moral perfection, can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. While those outside of Christ can accomplish the ‘good,’ they cannot accomplish the ‘Good,’ which is only obtained through theosis. Yet, the Good is recognized as more than an abstract concept, but rather as a Person.[8] Therefore, the theanthropic life is not one in search of conformity to an ideal, but instead conformity to a Person.

Since God, being good, created the world, it follows that He created man with a good telos. The entire point of virtue within the theanthropic life is to make humans better humans, to achieve their telos.[9] In order to be good as God is good, humans must first live up to being humans. Sadly, in Christian teachings, the Fall (the events of Genesis 3) inhibited the ability to always choose the good. Due to sin, humans are incapable of achieving their telos and moving beyond their telos, which in turn puts a divide between them and God.

Through Christ, however, God has made it possible for humans not only to be good, but also to become divine. As St. John Damascene writes,

“Now, the virtues are natural, and they are also naturally inherent in all men, even though all of us do not act naturally. For, because of the fall, we went from what is according to nature to what is against it. But the Lord brought us back from what is against nature to what is according to it – for this last is what is meant by ‘according to his image and likeness.’”[10]

Thus, while virtue is inherent to the nature of humanity, due to sin men abandon the natural and partake in the unnatural. Through the Incarnation, however, Christ assumed the entirety of what it means to be human and thus gave power to man to achieve his telos.[11]

It should be noted, however, that the theanthropic life does not end with virtue, but rather uses virtues as a means. It could be said that while virtue aids man in becoming man, theosis aids man in becoming God (or divine). As Lossky points out, “The virtues are not the end but the means, or, rather, the symptoms, the outward manifestations of the Christian life, the sole end of which is the acquisition of grace.”[12] Virtue is the changing of the intellect and the attitude, but in conjunction with theosis grace works within a person to allow him to act on the intellect and become good as God is good.[13]

Humanist Objections to Christian Ethics

Of course, to some the above explanation of the theanthropic ethic – that God is good, created humans to be good, and then calls humans to be good as He is good – fails to provide a satisfactory defense for Christian ethics. Turning again to the critiques of Christian ethics, one would question how one can know God is good and, further, how one can develop a moral oughtness from God being good. Turning to Stephen Law, one reads,

“Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. However, suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.”[14]

Thus, one could argue that even if God is supremely narcissistic, He created humans simply to gain pleasure from torturing them. Certainly, this would still be an act of narcissism. One could also theorize that being a narcissist God wanted other lesser beings to recognize how great He is and to serve Him fully, irrespective of how He treats them.

Nielsen points out the contradiction Christians end up in if they wish to show that God is good, they must rely on a non-theistic standard of good. Since the believer is left pointing to an “outside criteria” to prove God’s goodness, “…God cannot be the only criterion for moral belief, let alone the only fundamental or adequate moral criterion. We must look elsewhere for the foundations of morality.”[15] The argument is a type of Euthyphro dilemma where either God arbitrarily declares what is good or God is good by some standard external to Himself, negating that He is actually God.

The final objection is that even if God is good, there is no reason to believe there is a grand telos to human ethics. As Nielsen theorizes, humans have a ‘purpose’ in everyday life, but there is no grand purpose, or a metanarrative of purpose.[16] He states that one can pursue happiness and purpose, but only the happiness and purpose one creates. The ultimate end for Peter is different from the ultimate end of Paul. Even if God is good, it does not follow that humans are called to be good as God is good; one must still rely on a source external to God in order to know the moral ought.

Christianity Triumphant

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The Nature of Evil and the Human Condition


Some months ago I wrote a series of posts critiquing the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.  As a result, I was promptly accused, by some readers, of being a Pelagian.  It was then that I realized that I had made a rather notable mistake: I had failed to expound upon what I believed with regards to sin, the human condition, and man’s salvation.  Having failed to explain what I believe, some readers misunderstood my critiques of total depravity and jumped to some rather extreme conclusions about my theology.

In consequence, I have decided to write this post in an effort to further clarify my position.  This essay reflects, however poorly, what I believe about the depravity of man, the  nature of sin and evil, and, in an extremely limited way, salvation.  I will not discuss, in any detail, my theory of the atonement, justification, or sanctification; rather, I will simply emphasize man’s utter dependence upon God for life and his unavoidable dependency upon God’s grace and mercy to be saved.

I will begin by making several metaphysical observations.  First of all, it’s important to understand that everything that God has made is good and no matter how twisted or broken it becomes, it will never cease to maintain some vestige of its original goodness (Gen. 1:31).  St. Augustine understood this fundamental point of ontology and communicated it very clearly:

“All things that exist, therefore, seeing that the Creator of them all is supremely good, are themselves good.  But because they are not, like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, their good may be diminished and increased.  But for good to be diminished is an evil, although, however much it may be diminished, it is necessary if the being is to continue, that some good should remain to constitute the being.  For however small or of whatever kind of being it may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself.”

Please note that St. Augustine is speaking of the good in an ontological sense and not in an ethical sense.  Also note that, for him, evil does not  have a substantial existence, in and of itself, but only exists in the form of a degradation of or corruption of something which is substantial good.  Thus, when I say that human beings are by nature good I’m not claiming that they are without sin (i.e. ethically good) but that they are made in the image and likeness of God and, hence, in the image of Goodness and Perfection Himself.  Therefore, no matter how much sin twists and degrades us, we never stop being human–for if the image of God was completely eradicated the good which sustains our being would have been destroyed and we would cease to exist.

St. John of Damascus is also extremely helpful in clarifying this point:

“. . . evil is no more than a negation of good and a lapse from what is natural to what is unnatural, for there is nothing that is naturally evil.  Now, as they are made, all things that God made were very good.  So, if they remain as they were created, then they are very good.  But, if they freely withdraw from the natural and pass to the unnatural, then they become evil.  All things, then, by nature serve and obey the Creator.  So, whenever any creature freely rebels and becomes disobedient to Him who made him, he has brought the evil upon himself.  For evil is not some sort of substance, nor yet a property of a substance, but an accident, that is to say, a deviation from the natural into the unnatural, which is just what sin is.”

It’s clear, therefore, that sin is a corruption of what is substantially good and is fundamentally an ethical problem rooted in the will of man.  With his capacity of self-determination, man choses to act in a way which is contrary to his nature, to turn himself away from the Good, and thus, to subject himself to futility.  Hence, to speak of man being depraved, is to speak in terms of ethics and not in terms of ontology.  Nevertheless, it is also clear that our sin, our depravity has profound ontological consequences.  These truths are evident in Psalm 53:

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity, there is none that does good.  God looks down from heaven, upon the sons of man, to see if there are any that are wise, who seek after God.  They have all fallen away; they are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not even one.”  (Psalm 53:1-3)

Further down the Psalmist continues:

“There they [those who have rejected God] are, in great terror, in terror such as has not been!  For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them” (Psalm 53: 5).

Having rejected God in their hearts (which is clearly an act of the will) mans behavior becomes corrupt and he chooses to live an unethical life.  His sinful choices, as the Psalmist makes clear, lead to his dissolution and destruction.  This point is also made by St. Paul in no uncertain terms, who proclaimed that:  “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Therefore, from a Biblical perspective, the depravity of man is an ethical problem with profound ontological consequences (1).

Furthermore, according to Psalm 53, this ethical problem is pervasive and universal; that is to say, every human being chooses, of his own free will, to turn away from God in order to serve his own self-interest; to worship the Creation rather than the Creator (this idea is more fully developed by St. Paul in Romans 1).

So, although man is by nature good, being made in the image of God, he suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin:  namely, he is born outside the garden and, hence, estranged from God, he is subject to physical corruption and bodily death, he is tempted and manipulated by evil spirits, and constantly suffering from and profoundly affected by the sinful choices of others.  Consequentially, this Fallen environment, this twisted and broken world system, drives man to make unethical choices and so, he also suffers from the consequences of his own personal sin.

The Bible teaches that there is only One who can save us from this horrible mess–Jesus Christ.  For man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma.  Let me repeat this lest I be accused, once more, of being a Pelagian: man, on his own, cannot save himself; he is utterly incapable of rescuing himself from this dilemma.  Salvation is an act of God who lavishes us with his love and grace. (2)  St. Paul, speaking to the Christians in Ephesus, states:

“and you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirt that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.  Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus . . . for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:1-8).

In summary, man is by nature good, being made in the image of God; thus, he is not totally depraved.  However, man is born into a broken and corrupted world, subject to the consequences of Adam’s sin, influenced by the sins of his forefathers and by the, “prince of the power of the air,” and, hence, he inevitably chooses to sin (i.e. to act in a manner which is contrary to his own nature).  In this way, in an ethical sense, man is radically depraved.  Trapped in a dying world and being guilty of personal sin, man is unable to do anything, on his own, to save himself.  He needs Jesus to pull him out of the mire, to give him life, and to fully restore the image and likeness of God which has been soiled by his sin and the sin of others.

(1) On this point, it should be noted, Reformed theology teaches the exact opposite of what we have just outlined; namely, it teaches that man has a serious ontological problem (being totally depraved or having a sin nature) with profound ethical consequences.  This notion, aside from being unbiblical, is also incoherent (see my previous writings on total depravity).

(2) This statement does not negate man’s responsibility or choice in the matter; nor does it deny he has free will.  Man must chose to participate in God’s work to save and restore Creation, he must chose to believe in Jesus; nevertheless, salvation is the work of God in man.