Category Archives: Orthodox

fallible language V: speaking about creation


We’re still in a series that I’ve begun last winter, about fallibility of language (find part I, part II, part III and part IV here) in which we were looking at the way in which language fails us sometimes.

We’ve been talking about God and theology, but today we’re going to go to a more specific discussion, that is very important for certain people in my own broad tribe of evangelicalism: speaking about Creation.

I’ve always found the 2 most vocal major streams of thought within contemporary Christianity equally irritating; at one hand you have the very militant creationists, who claim to know scientifically exactly how God has made the world in a lot more details than the bible can provide. And if you don’t follow them you don’t believe in the bible and you’ll lose your faith. On the other side you have those who have an equally big faith in science and who know that science has the last word in everything, and if there’s anything in Christianity or the bible that goes against the findings of modern science we should get rid of it…

To be honest, I find both positions to be equally impotent and signs of a quite uncritical synchretism with the arrogant optimism of the enlightenment that we human beings can and will know everything. My thoughts on how Creation has happened may have shifted over the years, but one of the things I’ve always known is that the circumstances of how God made the world are not likely to be found out completely by our science, the visible does not stem from what we can see, and neither that any description of it will ever be complete and able to scientifically nail down what happened.

Vinoth Ramachandra, writing from an Evangelical but non-Western Point of View, puts it this way in his excellent but quite heavy book ‘subverting global myths’:

Creationism and evolutions are simply mirror images of each other. The former reduces the Christian doctrine of creation to the level of a scientific account of chronological origins, and the latter elevated the biological theory of revolution into a total worldview. Paradoxically,creationist and evolutionists have more in common than they each realize: Both work within a “universe-as-machine” picture of the world, so that Gods relationship with the world can only be conceived in the form of ingeneer-type interventions which have to be scientifically inexplicable.

But the whole “universe as a machine” framework is just a modern way we think we make sense of the world… And Creation is something that happened outside of the things that we know and have words for, and something that was not witnessed by us. So I’d expect science to be able to find out something, but not at all even the main thing. Only of you’re a purely materialist Christian you could believe such a thing… (We’ve actually had discussions about evolution and spiritual beings here on this blog a while ago) But neither would I believe that an God-inspired description would be ever complete, it would just be an assurance that indeed God is the Creator. (the question about the origin of angels and demons is still there btw, genesis doesn’t say a word about this!)

With all of this in mind, I found the Orthodox way of looking at the subject of Creation much more interesting. Let’s go back to ‘light from the Christian East’:

For one thing, the Orthodox emphasis on our human inability to conceive of and speak about God and creation together could help us escape the sometimes acrimonious “creation versus evolution” arguments that so often have bedeviled reflection on the creation among Western Christians over the last century or so. From the perspectives of Orthodoxy, the first chapters of Genesis do not explain creation. Creation was God’s act, and no amount of human intellectual ingenuity could ever account for it, nor any human words capture it. The terse affirmations made in Genesis 1-2 do not amount to explanations or even descriptions, from an Orthodox perspective; they confront us with the declaration that all that is came from God. In presenting the entire universe as God’s creative handiwork, Orthodoxy excludes all thought of an evolutionary process operating outside of God, to be sure. Equally, it precludes any arrogant claim to comprehend from the first chapters of Genesis how God brought everything into existence. What Scripture presents is the declaration that God made all that is, without any attempt to clarify how all came into being. The opening chapters of Genesis present what must be wondered at, not what can be fathomed. They offer stimulation for common praise by all those who believe in him, not material with which we should brow-beat fellow believers whose ideas about the way in which God may have accomplished that work differ from ours.
Further, even if God had explained it to us, could we have understood it? What language could God borrow to explain to mere creatures the act of creation so that we could comprehend it? If his ways and thoughts are beyond ours (Is 55:8-9), should we not offer humble praise for his creation and what hè has told us about it, rather than fighting among ourselves as to who best comprehends how God brought all things into existence? Is the beginning of Scripture intended to satisfy our intellectual curiosity about “how,” or is it to invite us to celebrate “what” and “who”? Western Christians could learn a bit more humility in speaking about creation and God from their brothers and sisters in Eastern Orthodoxy. (Payton)

Now that’s a bit like what I think about the subject, but much more eloquently worded…

what do you think?

Shalom

Bram

see also this post and the discussion under it, on evolutionary creationism and angels…

fallible language IV: The bible contains everything?


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fallible language III: experience of God?


Let’s go back now to a series that I’ve begun last winter but left unfinished, about fallibility of language (find part I and part II here, as well as the apophatic interlude featuring our Friend Rollins) in which we were looking at the way in which language fails us sometimes. This was not (as you would expect from a postmodern like me) from a postmodern viewpoint, but I started from the thought of G.K. Chesterton and mostly from the classical Orthodox tradition, on which I was reading a quite good book, and the church fathers.

I have been writing about the fallibility of language, and about how difficult it is to speak about God, as a created being. One of the most important things here is that we as Christians are in the first place not just expected to know about God (which requires human language) but after all and more important, we are to know God Himself. Christianity is not a gnostic sect in which we are saved by mere knowledge, but a restored relationship with the Source of all Creation (‘God’) through Christ… And relationality entails a completely different sort of ‘knowing’ than academic publishing!

I could say a lot about this, but other people have said much more intelligent things about this subject than I’ll ever do. I do know that in certain protestant circles knowledge of God by any form of ‘personal experience’ is frowned upon, while other traditions, from the Charismatics and Quakers to the Eastern Orthodox, see it as normative in very different ways. Surely, not only experience is important,without wisdom and guidance we don’t even know what we’re following, so we need reason, tradition, scripture and experience or are in problems. But experience is in no way unimportant here. Let’s for example go back to the Orthodox tradition, where speaking about God is considered to be utterly impossible by one who has not experienced God:

Personal experience is requisite to any valid talk about God, from an Orthodox perspective. Such mystical experience of God in the divine energies not only draws us to God, it also confirms within us the appropriateness of both positive and negative theology. We must speak about God because we are Christian; but we must also rise above these concepts, because God is transcendent. Personal experience of God draws us into union with him about whom theology speaks. Without that experience, any such talk about God is vacuous and presumptuous, according to Orthodoxy. (Payton, Light from the East, p 84)

We have to notice here that the goal surely is not just to talk of God, or to be able to make money by writing books about God; He is the Ultimate Reality… And the goal of our life is to be united to Him, and outside of Him we or anything else cannot even exist…

I got a gut feeling that the more we experience of God, the less we will be able to talk about it and the less intellectual systems we will be able to proclaim with absolute modern certainty… Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest minds of the middle ages, wasn’t able to write anymore after a mystical experience with Christ. When they asked him to resume his writing works, he said that he couldn’t because ‘”all that I have written seems like straw to me”

And this leaves us not with less, but with even more problems in speaking about God, and the paradox of Peter Rollins:

“That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking”

Which might make it quite complicating, but who did ever say that it was easy??? It isn’t, and I have a long Way to go here, and maybe not much right to say anything about God… Who just IS beyond all we can say or understand…

What’s your experience here?

shalom

Bram

Keep me ignorant so I’ll stay out of hell?


The following picture was making its rounds on facebook today, and I do sort of think that it shows that some forms of Christian inclusivism are in serious need of reconsidering their very basic framework:

Let me first clarify that I’m not at all sure about the historicity of this quote, and I don’t have a source except for this FB picture… An American Orthodox FB friend pointed out that the Inuit were evangelised by the orthodox, and not by the catholic or protestants, which makes the story more doubtful, since this way of thought appears to not at all not be compatible with Orthodoxy…

The problem in the quote is clear: If you believe in Christ you will be saved from hell, but what about those who never heard that good news? Some would say that they all go to hell and stand accused nonetheless, while others trust in Gods mercy to be able to save more, which gives us certain forms of universalism (all go to heaven because Christ will be able to save all) or inclusivism (not all non-Christians will be unsaved) of different varieties.

The inclusivism that’s propagated in the picture assumes that those who are ignorant of God and the gospel cannot be held responsible, and can therefore not be sent to hell (unless they are really evil probably) but from the moment they have heard the gospel they will have to respond by converting, or otherwise they will be sent to hell… (insert a whole talk about ‘justice’ and ‘wrath’ here) The biggest problem is this: Maybe with such a theology it would be better to not evangelise at all, since then less people won’t go to hell…

Uhhh???

I would think that there are some problems with the basic framework. The biggest one is the view of salvation as being first and foremost being saved from God putting you in hell, which can be avoided by believing that Jesus saved you from this fate on the Cross. I would think that the mentality of ‘being saved from hell by a conscious decision to believe stuff’ which does not apply when the person is ‘ignorant’ and has not heard that information is quite one sided, but much more merciful than ‘all will go to hell for not accepting information they could never have’…

Where the approach fails I think, is that there’s much more to say about salvation that getting a ‘get out of hell free’ card… Salvation is getting reconciled to God, and also our neighbor (and the rest of creation btw!) and the word is also used throughout the bible in a lot of contextual situations just for ‘getting out of trouble’. This means that we are saved from a way that leads to death, (the wages of sin are death, as Paul says in Romans. This does not have to mean at all that God puts sinners in hell, but it literally means that sin leads away from life into death!) and disconnect from God, and indeed this way easily leads to hell, not because God sends us there, but because that’s where it goes naturally.

Another problem here is the purely legal framing of sin and salvation that some Western traditions use. Surely the legal metaphors are useful, but they are not the ultimate description. The bible and the Christian tradition have used a lot more metaphors, which are all windows on the Truth, but none will ever completely frame it… That being said, I do think that we miss a lot, too much even, if we think that the biggest problem is not an actual saving from death, evil, sin and destruction, but a change in legal status that enables God to not put us in hell but in heaven…

Being cut off from the Source of Life, which is what being unreconciled to God means, would be hell or even total annihilation if god would gives us what we want when we don’t want to leave that road. On the other hand, being in the undiluted presence of God as an unreconciled creature would most probably have a similar outcome, experiencing Gods holiness while being deeply infected by sin can also mean our hell, or annihilation…

(To me both of these approaches make much more sense than the aforementioned over-legal framework some of my fellow protestants employ, which just cheapens sin into the breaking of arbitrary rules instead of something that is in itself capable of harming and destroying us. They are also in line with for example the views of C.S. Lewis for example…)

If salvation is being ontologically reconciled to God (and our fellow human and all of Creation) the above kind of reasoning makes not much sense… Inclusivism is not really a problem though, like C.S. Lewis says, we know that only Jesus saves, but do people have to know His name to be saved by Him? Those who follow ‘the light they’ve been given’ and try to live out what they know about living in harmony with God are likely to be able to, at the final judgment, see and say ‘this is Who I’ve known and try to follow all my life’… Those who followed evil all the way, and are formed by it, will most likely just not have anything to do with God, and they will probably not be able to stand the presence of God and His holiness at all…

So, what are your opinions?

Shalom

Bram

‘Saint’ Constantine the not-so-great vs the sermon on the mount… (E. Stanley Jones)


Regular readers of this blog will know how much I appreciate certain other Christian traditions. Traditions that I love deeply are quite incompatible streams in Church history like for example the Orthodox tradition, Franciscanism, certain strands of anabaptism and the quakers… I guess I do have my disagreements with every tradition (including my own tribe) as they do among each other too, but I believe that we need all of them (probably even those whom I do not like and don’t feel much affinity with, like fundamentalism and Calvinism) to complete the Church of Christ. And I am very likely to be wrong myself on some things too…

I like for example  the Orthodox for their connection with the early Church and the church fathers, which makes them the keepers of a lot of treasures that we modern Western Christians have lost long ago but are needing right now. But on the other hand I could never agree with some other things, like their veneration of someone like emperor Constantine the Great as a saint, and some of the nationalism going on in some Orthodox churches… Which is why I (as a postmodern generic charismatic and more-or-less Wesleyan evangelical) do think we need the Anabaptist testimony too…

The next piece from E.Stanley Jones in my opinion shows why we need to recover the emphasis on the enemy-love and the rest of the sermon on the mount, and it offers -very daringly- a critique to the emphasis of the ancient creeds. (I do not say that the next piece describes all of the fathers, I have read a lot from them that would qualify for good Lovers in the path of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.)

Suppose we had written it in our creeds and had repeated each time with conviction:

“I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and in its way of life, and I intend, God helping me, to embody it” !

What would have happened? I feel sure that if this had been our main emphasis, the history of Christendom would have been different. With emphasis on doctrines which left unaffected our way of life the Christian Church could accept Constantine as its prize convert. And yet Constantine, after his alleged conversion, murdered his conquered colleague and brother-in-law Licinius ; sentenced to death his eleven-year-old nephew, killed his eldest son, Crispus; brought about the death of his second wife; took the nails that were supposed to come from the cross of Christ and tised one in his war helmet and another on the bridle of his war horse. Yet he was canonized by the Greek Church and his memory celebrated “as equal to the apostles.” He talked and presided at the opening of the Council of Nicea, which was called to frame a creed, and he was hailed as “a .bishop of bishops.” Could this have happened if the men who had gathered there had made the Sermon on the Mount an essential part of the Creed? It had no place in it, so Constantine could be at home. What had happened was that the Christian Church had been conquered by a pagan warrior. And the church allowed itself to be thus conquered, for this ideal of Christ did not have possession of its soul.

E. Stanley Jones, the Christ of the Mount

As someone who borders on paleo-orthodoxy this is something I wrestle with, but I indeed do miss in the creeds the emphasis on Jesus as the Way, and on Christians as followers of the Way, which is Christ. And where do we find a better description of the Way of Christ than in the sermon on the mount?

And there is something highly disturbing about Constantine in a lot of ways…

So what do you think?

shalom

Bram

The imago dei, or very very basic Christian humanism…


A Japanese orthodox Facebook friend posted something quite beautiful this morning, that fits perfectly with something that I’ve been contemplating lately:

Question: Do you know why Orthodox monastics bow to the ground when they meet someone?

Answer: Because they see all they encounter as Icons of God, and honor the image of God in every person by bowing to them.

I don’t think bowing for everyone would be very practical, but I love the idea behind it, and I think it points to something we should learn about more as Western Christians: honoring the image of God in every human being.

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.

(Gen 1:27, NET-bible)

I would call this ‘basic Christian humanism’: the idea that every human being is of infinite worth, because he or she carries the image of God. This idea of the imago dei was behind the first wave of what was called humanism in the Renaissance time (think people like Erasmus). It’s only much later that humanism and Christianity were disconnected from each other, and that ‘humanism’ became associated with atheism.

Every human might be fallen and affected by sin, but it’s also true that every human bears the image of God. From the mightiest president and the noisiest rockstar to the poorest immigrant and the tiniest baby. All of them. And that makes all of them, even the ones we can’t help but dislike or hate, worthy of respect. Even enemies deserve our love, as Jesus taught us.

No human being is worthless,
no human being is disposable.
Treating any human like that is blaspheming Gods image!

God, open my eyes,
let me see Your Image,
in everyone,
let me see Your fingerprints
on all of Creation
let me honor all glimpses
of Truth and Beauty
they are all Yours,
everything good and perfect
comes from You
praise to Father, Son and Spirit,
Three-in-one,
Amen

what do you think?

shalom

Bram