Tin Cans with Nothing Inside

tin-cansPeople often struggle with the question of  “how do we know God?”

Last summer one of my classmates for the training at one of my old jobs asked me about my degree. When we did our introductions my partner mentioned that I hold a B.S. in Bible and Preaching/Church Leadership. He told me how he was not of faith, but was an agnostic and that he really can’t know. He asked me a few questions about Orthodoxy and told me how his grandmother tried to scare him to Christ by preaching about hell to him. I told him we Orthodox would never preach what I call “Escapist Theology” (for me this means two things: those who believe in rapture and/or those who preach get-out-of-hell-free sermons). I have since heard him remark several times to others in the class about his agnosticism and what not.

Later in that same of week, I also watched a video with Fr. Hans Jacobse debating an atheist where the atheist asked about how we determine truth and what is real, etc. Yet another case of “how do we know?” being asked.

At the time, I had began reading Kyriacos Markides’ book “The Mountain of Silence“, which journals his travels and time spent with Father Maximos, a monk and spiritual elder from Mt. Athos who mentors Kyriacos on his journey from being a materialist atheist to being open to spirituality and faith as he explores many traditions.

It was at this point that I was beginning to hear a lot about how do we know God. This prompted much though in my life, so I thought I’d write about it. How do we know God? How do we observe reality? In the book, Kyriacos mentioned a criteria for this that a fellow professor had made known to him. The three ways we know reality is:

  1. The Eye of the Senses (empirical, science)
  2. The Eye of Reason (Philosophy, logic, math, [I also add theology])
  3. The Eye of Contemplation (systematic and disciplined spiritual practice to open upthe intuitive and spiritual faculties of the self)

Kyriacos says, “These are the three different and unique order of reality with their own legitimate and distinct domains, laws, and characteristics that cannot be reduced into one another.”

Now, let’s skip ahead to a conversation Kyriacos has with Father Maximos about this very subject of knowing. Father Maximos remarks at one point, “God,  you see, loves to be investigated by humans.” What Father meant by this is that God wants to be searched for and found. He does not expect us to commit to fideism. Kyriacos follows up that statement by asking, “…If God indeed urges us to be inquisitive, how are we then supposed to conduct our research? Are we to turn to science, to philosophy, or to theology as our starting point” (page 42)?

Father Maximos makes a point about how if we want to study things like the stars then we use a telescope. He says, “Everything must be explored through a method appropriate to the subject under investigation. If we, therefore, wish to explore and get to know God, it would be a gross error to do so through our senses or with telescopes, seeking Him out in outer space. That would be utterly naive, don’t you think?” He goes on, “It would be equally foolish and naive to seek God with our logic and intellect” (page 43).

In his book, “The Sickness Unto Death”, existential philosopher Soren Kiekegaard writes, “”Is it such great merit or is it not rather insolence or thoughtlessness to want to comprehend that which does not want to be comprehended?” This is what Father Maximos means by our logic and reason being lacking means to explore God. How do we, finite human, with our finite logic and reason explore that Other that lies outside the bounds of our logic and reason? It is quite absurd to think these are means to explore God on their own.

Father Maximos still firmly believes that we are to study God and come to know him, but it was Kyriacos’ question of how that carries the conversation forward between them. Father answers that with, “Christ Himself revealed to us the method. He told us that not only are we capable of exploring God but we can also live with Him, become one with Him. And the organ by which we can achieve that is neither our senses nor our logic but our hearts” (page 43).

Our existential foundation, according to the Holy Elders, is indeed our hearts. Mind you, our hearts are the center of our being, the place where our personhood lies. It is the “center of our psychonoetic powers, the center of our beingness, of our personhood. It is therefore through the heart that God reveals Himself to humanity” (page 43). Those who wish to know God, to see Him, to live in communion with Him, cannot do it through logic, theology, reason, science, or by reading Plato and the philosophers. Father Maximos says, “It is only the cleanliness and purity of the heart that can lead to the contemplation and vision of God. This is the meaning of Christ’s Beatitude, ‘Blessed be the pure at heart for they shall see God’” (page 44).

Father goes on to elaborate on how if we wish to investigate and explore God that we must emply the proper method of investigation, which is none other than the Eye of Contemplation and the purifying of one’s heart from the egotistical passions that plague us. He even goes as far as to say that if those who manage to do this, truly do it, and do not see God then they are justified in becoming atheist.

Father Maximos points out that the philosophical quest for God is one that is off. It is only through the existential experiential vision of God that we come to know Him and love Him. Theology, philosophy, the senses, etc. can all point towards God, but they cannot give you God. God cannot be contained to these finite things we have created with our minds. As Father says we must “transcend the IDEA of God and enter into the EXPERIENCE of God” (page 45). He goes on to say, “As long as we do not know God experientially then we should at least realize that we are simply ideological believers…The ideal and ultimate form of true faith means having direct experience of God as a living reality” (page 45).

Father Maximos goes on to speak of the Creed and how the Christian mystical tradition is tied very much to the Creed for it speaks of a living God, of Reality.

I could go on with the conversation with these two men and the spiritual wisdom of the young Father Maximos, but I want to share one last part of what he said:

True faith means I live with God, I am one with God. I have come to know God and therefore I know that He truly Is. God lives inside me and is victorious over death and I move forward with God. The entire methodology of the authentic Christian mystical tradition as articulated by the saints is to reach that state where we become conscious of the reality of God within ourselves. Until we reach that point we simply remain stranded with the domain of ideas and not within the essence of Christian spirituality which is the direct communion with God” (page 45).

I am a huge fan of theology, of the life of the mind. I do not think the Eye of Contemplation is at all a disrespect to the life of the mind. After all, Christ told us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Eye of Contemplation incorporates the asceticismthat is needed in order to kill the egotistical passions. This truth of the Christian mystical tradition of the East does not kill, neglect, or cancel out the other two Eyes. It simply means that those two cannot bring about the experience of God. They can suggest it, recommend it, or show it, but they are not a direct participation in God. Those disciplines of the mind cannot bring us into the heart, which is where our selves lie. Our true selves. I find the most beautiful thing I have read thus far on the joys of living in the heart come from Father Meletios Webber in his book “Bread & Water; Wine & Oil”:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling. Rather, it begins with an awareness of its relationship with the rest of creation (and everything and everyone in it), accepting rather than rejecting, finding similarity rather than alienation and likeness rather than difference. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. Little wonder, then, that the mind, always impatient and very demanding, manages to dominate it so thoroughly.”

The Eye of Contemplation brings us to the place of which Father Maximos and Father Meletios speak. It is in our hearts where we live in communion with God and find the grace of the Holy Spirit and the gifts He brings. The only method of exploring God is to experience God. The only way to experience God is to live in the heart through contemplation and asceticism and participation with His Church and Her Divine Mysteries, which He has given as tangible means of Grace. The knowledge of God resides nowhere else.

Father Maximos said, “We lost the knowledge of God…at the moment when we transformed the Eccelsia from experience into theology, from a living reality into moralistic principles, good values, and high ideals. When that happened…we became like tin cans with nothing inside” (page 55).

I am convicted that I more than anyone else have felt the impact of those words. I more than anyone else have been living a life like that of a tin can with nothing inside. It is now, through the asceticism of the Orthodox Faith, that I’m learning I have only experience God in very small ways due to my insistence on theology, philosophy, and reason. What good is a tool-less Christianity that does not provide one with the means to know and love God and live in Him?

These tools of asceticism I am discovering and the need to experience God and to know Him in my heart by the Eye of Contemplation are the beginning of a life lived like a can being filled to the brim with life until it overflows abundantly with the knowledge of God and His love and grace.


Widening Our Vision (Windows to Heaven)

ImageWhy do the Orthodox venerate and incorporate icons into their worship? It comes down to the belief that we see the world, as Father Stephen says, as a one-storey universe. God is here and now. The Church here on earth is the same as in heaven. The incarnation is what brings this about.

Basically, icons give us a picture of the worship in heaven. As we worship here on earth the saints are worshiping in heaven. The icons help us in seeing that. They give an incarnational presence. 

It has a lot to do with our view of the Church being the same on earth and in heaven. The communion of the Saints is key in this. We believe that since heaven is here and now that the saints are with God and worship Him. If heaven is here and now that means it is among us and we are all one Church. We are never alone for the saints are with us. We just aren’t able to see that; we aren’t able to perceive it with our limited vision. However, I think we can learn to see; we can enlarge our vision, our understanding.

When I enter into the nave of our parish and I see the icons making present the reality of worship I feel at home.  It is an overwhelming feeling to be connected to the Church in heaven and on earth as we participate in the Divine Liturgy that has been prayed for 1,500 years in its current form by billions, if not trillions, of Christians.  It is an overwhelming sense of belonging to know that that many people have said those same prayers and that millions more are saying them with us in the presence of the saints as we worship the Holy Trinity together.

The icons give us a picture of reality. We can widen our vision, our spiritual vision,  if we begin to understand that there is no dividing line between heaven and earth; we can widen our vision by realizing that there is one Church in heaven and one Church on earth. The Church is fully one and united in Christ in heaven and earth. When venerate the icons because they are worthy of our reverence. They make present the lives of the Saints.  We have respect and love for those who went before us. We honor them. We participate in worship of the All Holy Trinity with them. There is a richness to the Orthodox form of worship. It engages us fully, holistically. One Orthodox Christian said, “We see the Gospel in the icons.” Words fall short when spoken alone. The icons helps us to see the Gospel, to see reality in a way in which our eyes prohibit us.

This is not a full theology concerning the icons, but a basic induction to them as I have come to understand them. In summary, I once read that the “icons do with colors what the Scriptures do with words.” I wanted to write this up to give a basic, simple understanding of the icons. I’m sure others can answer the question of why we have them and venerate them better, but this is how I have come to understand them.



The Secret of the Universalist Hope

Eclectic Orthodoxy

“Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Confessions I.1)—perhaps the most famous sentence from one of the most famous prayers (and most certainly the longest) in the catholic tradition. St Augustine’s words have been quoted by preachers ever since they were penned. They point us to the most fundamental truth of our existence—we are created for God and can only find lasting happiness and fulfillment in him. Stephen J. Duffey offers the following commentary:

Grace is a comprehensive ambience for Augustine. No person, event, aspect of his life stood outside the divine intent to bring him to fulfillment. Conversion was not the first entrance of grace into his life, only the compass point from which he could read the presence of grace from the very beginning of his days. Wherever…

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The Goal of Orthodoxy or (The Holistic Eschatological Orthodox Ethic)

1077506_10201892382165523_1527516608_oA post originally shared on my old blog, Orthodox Ruminations:


Today I had an old friend, with whom I have recently reconnected with more over Facebook, ask me, “What is your goal as part of the Orthodox Church?” This prompted great thought in me as I later drove to visit a Catholic bookstore to purchase some icons. It brings to mind thediscussion of ethics from my Senior Capstone where we studied the deontological, teleological, and areteological ethics. Deontological ethics are ethics informed by rules we keep. Telelogical ethics are ethics informed by the goals we set for ourselves or as a society. Areteological ethics are ethics informed by the virtues that form us from within. I believe that the goal (teleological ethic) of Orthodoxy is union with God via the ascetic practices (a form/type of deontological ethics) which seeks to kill our flesh, our passions, and restore us to right virtue within (areteological ethics), to restore us to right living and right relationship with God. The goal of Orthodoxy for me incorporates all the ethical avenues into one ascetic cocoon that takes us in as sinners, but transforms us to one day be resurrected in new life.

I, again, would say that the overall goal of Orthodoxy is union with God through what we call theosis, meaning “to be made divine”. Orthodox Wiki states of theosis, “Theosis (‘deification,’ ‘divinization’) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (‘missing the mark’), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection.’ Of course we aren’t made divine as God is in His essence, but divine as we were made to be in our original glorious state. We become truly human again, which is what Christ shows us in His becoming human. Theosis is,  as St. Peter said in his epistle, “putting on the divine nature”. Saint Athanasius said, “God became man that man may become god” (note the lower case g).

Now not to confuse readers unfamiliar with Orthodoxy too much we have a teaching about God’s energies and God’s essence. God’s essence is who He is, which is unknowable to us; it’s His ontology, His beingness, His ousia. It is the Numinous. His energies is manifestations of that essence. Grace itself is the energies of God which allow us to experience something of the Divine. We become like God in His energies. We become divine once again. We become Eucharistic. The real fall of man is that he ate that which he could not give thanks for. We become thankful. We take what God has made and given for our lives here on earth, along with our very lives, and offer them up in thanksgiving back to God through what we call askesis. Askesis is the practice of the spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, worship in the Divine Liturgy, etc. It is participating in the ascetic life to kill the Old Man, our flesh, and live from our hearts, where our true selves lie.

The goal of orthodoxy is theosis, the uniting of man with God, in holy love and holy light. It is union of the Divine with humanity. This is the goal of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is both internally focused, but externally present and manifested. Meaning the spiritual life is a struggle inherent in our own personal lives, but lived out and witnessed by all. Our goal is theosis, complete union with God. We are in continual repentance, and we are continually being made holy and are continually dying to the flesh. This is a struggle faced all our lives and is lived as repentance.

But we also live lives of holiness and show others the work of Christ in our lives. We do preach. We do evangelize. You don’t have 250 million adherents worldwide at this moment without evangelization. Of course our understanding of those things are vastly different than Protestants, but we do preach the Gospel and plant missions (new parishes) that feed the poor, hungry, etc. We do all of these things. Especially monastics.

However, it is by the quality of our inner lives that others see Christ. St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” This is what we do. We share with many, with all, the peace of Christ who has taken us into Himself. Our lives as St. Paul says are hidden in Christ with God. (Col.)

When we gain this inner peace from the hell that is our lives we spread that joy to others. It is participating in the grace, the energies, of God. We reinvest that grace given to us by our own askesis and spreading the light of Christ, making Him present in our mortal flesh to those around us. We become little Christs.

I’d say that this is the goal of Orthodoxy. We have the teleological goal of union with God via the deontological goal of askesis which transforms us areteologically and conforms us to the image of Christ. This is theosis. This is Orthodoxy. We are eschatological beings and Orthodoxy is an eschatological faith. This is a very short answer to a very complex question posed to me, but I hope I do it some ounce of justice. This is the Orthodox Ethic so to speak. I believe the ethics perspective paints a great picture of Orthodoxy and what it seeks to do in the human heart and mind. This is our goal; this is our ethic.

May God have mercy on us all and remember us in His Kingdom.

Goddammit, Who Damns Whom?

“Is the freedom to reject God—definitively, irrevocably, everlastingly—authentic freedom? Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, and all other free-will defenders of eternal perdition must answer yes. To answer otherwise would mean that God permits individuals who live under a serious form of bondage, constraint, or limitation—and are thus incapable of morally responsible action—to injure themselves irreparably. As is commonly stated, God does not damn; the damned damn themselves. Yet the notion that human beings are capable of freely separating themselves from the bliss of the Kingdom and thus freely embracing eternal torment is far more complex than we might initially imagine.”

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Is the freedom to reject God—definitively, irrevocably, everlastingly—authentic freedom? Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, and all other free-will defenders of eternal perdition must answer yes. To answer otherwise would mean that God permits individuals who live under a serious form of bondage, constraint, or limitation—and are thus incapable of morally responsible action—to injure themselves irreparably. As is commonly stated, God does not damn; the damned damn themselves. Yet the notion that human beings are capable of freely separating themselves from the bliss of the Kingdom and thus freely embracing eternal torment is far more complex than we might initially imagine.

I’d like to come at this by first briefly considering our Lord’s famous parable on the Last Judgment:

Now, whenever the Son of Mankind may be coming in His glory, and all the holy messengers with Him, then shall He be seated on the throne of His glory, and in…

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A Particular Scandal

ImageOne thing I have discovered to be true as a convert to Orthodoxy is that belief in the Particularly is always offensive and weird to those holding to the general. It’s scandalizes them! Father Stephen over at Glory to God for All Things nails it here in one of his recent blog posts. Read and share and enjoy: 

A Particular Scandal 

By Father Stephen Freeman

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. The 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; theTikhvin 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 moregeneric

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”). 

Classical Christianity (whether Roman Catholic or Orthodox) proclaims the Particularity of God. It is why Classical Christianity speaks of “the” Church. That both classical groups speak in such particular terms is not mutually contradictory – it is simply evidence of the Great Schism. The present conversations between them are a discussion about the nature of the Particular and themselves. Those who have distanced themselves from the Particular God have no place at the table, because they have declared that the table does not exist.

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.

The Universalist Hope in the Early Church

Eclectic Orthodoxy

I confess that my immersion in the eschatological views of Fr Dumitu Staniloae has been depressing and discouraging. Perhaps in his divine foresight God saw that this would be the case, and so he provided an antidote. Last week I received an email from my local library informing me that they had finally obtained through ILL a copy of Ilaria L. E. Ramelli’s massive work of scholarship, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis . The book weighs in at 890 pages, as well as at the hefty price of $328 (yep, you read that right). I have been dipping into the book from time to time in order to maintain my sanity. It is a remarkable work of critical scholarship. Ilaria Ramelli is no mean scholar. She is highly regarded by her professional peers and has published dozens of books, essays, and monographs in patristic scholarship.

The rehabilitation of Origen and…

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