Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Ecumenical Reality

          Sometimes I feel a little sorry for the Pope—he seems to have the unenviable task of changing Roman Catholic dogma and practice while all the time denying that he is doing any such thing. Take for example his apparent recent desire to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics into Eucharistic Communion. Traditional Catholic theology and papal pronouncements said that such readmission was not possible for the remarried Catholic unless he or she either returned to the original partner or lived in celibacy. The aura of authority surrounding these pronouncements, whether or not proclaimed with ex cathedra infallibility, allowed for very little if any wriggle room. As one dear friend said (a Ukrainian Catholic priest, no less), “Being the Pope means never having to say you’re sorry.” In theory anyway, whatever Rome says is right, is right. Period. End of discussion. Roma locuta; causa finita est.
          The problem becomes larger because Roma has spoken and dogmatized about so many things over the centuries, some of which it would appear it now regrets. Take, for example, the heretical status of Protestants. In reaction to the Reformation, Rome said pretty authoritatively and clearly that all Protestants were going to hell, and that it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to so much as enter a Protestant Church. One can see why from their point of view: as far as they were concerned, the Roman Catholic Church had never erred and was in no such need of correction as the reformers alleged. Indeed, the Roman Church was a societas perfecta which, however defined, did not encourage profound self- criticism. If the Roman Church had nothing that radically wrong with it, then surely the Protestant Reformers were heretics pure and simple, not really very different from such older heretics such as Arius and Nestorius. That being so, anathema to them!
          Then came the latter half of the twentieth century, and by the time of the Second Vatican Council, a desire arose to deal with the Protestants rather more gently. The fascinating sea-change which transformed anathematized heretics into “separated brethren” has been well told by Fr. Peter Heers, in his volume The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II. In it we learn that although a few old hard-liners voted against the new sea-change (having been taught all their lives that Protestants were hell-bound heretics), the ecumenical reformers succeeded in reforming the status of the Reformers. An aggiornamento indeed!
          What does all this have to do with how Orthodoxy views those outside its canonical boundaries? Do we Orthodox find ourselves facing the same dilemma as our Roman Catholic friends regarding the status of those outside their communion, changing our past dogmas to conform to present perceptions? I don’t think we do.
          When we return to the patristic approach to heresy, we find the Fathers dealing with people who knew Orthodoxy, understood it to a great degree, and who still rejected it vehemently enough to go into schism. St. Basil famously distinguished between the varying degrees of separation within these groups. Some were sufficiently close to Orthodoxy as to be reconciled through a simple recantation of their errors; others were further enough from Orthodoxy that their reconciliation required them to be chrismated; and some were so estranged from Orthodoxy that they had to be received by baptism. One could argue about whether or not these different ways of receiving heretics into the Church represented differing appreciations of their baptisms. Here I only point out two things: 1. all of those outside the Church were considered as being outside salvation, and 2. all of those heretics were consciously and deliberating rejecting the Orthodox Faith.
          This last point is important, for it reveals the significance of the subjective state of the heretic. That is, heresy and the schism to which it led were considered damnable not simply because the heretic was in factual error about some bit of theology, but because he had sinned against love. Mere well- intentioned error alone does not suffice to make one a heretic—one must also hold to one’s erroneous view in defiance of the community, proudly scorning the received Tradition. (We note that, for all his odd personal views, men like Origen died in the communion of the Church; I would suggest therefore that although “Origenism” is heretical; Origen himself was not actually a heretic.) Heresy is primarily a
matter of the heart; it is more like rejecting one’s family than like adding up a tall column of figures and getting the sum wrong.
          The Fathers’ denunciation of the heretics of their day were denunciations of men who were rejecting the Orthodox family, and if we would be faithful to their patristic glossary, we would also define as heretics today men to were moved to reject Orthodoxy in the same way as did the heretics of old. But in fact we find the modern Protestants do not fit this ancient pattern quite so well.
           Here we differ from our Roman Catholic friends. They were committed to the view that there was nothing much doctrinally wrong with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and so had little choice but to reject their Protestant critics as heretics. We Orthodox can see plenty wrong with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and in fact would agree with much (though of course not all) of the Protestant critique. Admittedly the Protestants in varying degrees threw out some of the doctrinal baby with the bathwater. But that does not change the fact that in much of their quarrel with Rome they were motivated by genuine Christian impulse—i.e. they were concerned to a large degree to serve Christ. If the Roman Catholic Church was by the sixteenth century in such a mess that we Orthodox could not bring ourselves to be in communion with them, can we really blame the Protestants for going and doing likewise?
          This Protestant concern to serve Christ was not, I submit, enough to preserve their ecclesiastical status. If Rome was then in schism, then the Protestants were doubly so. But it was enough, I suggest, to save their souls, and to rescue them from the unambiguous condemnation such as the Fathers justly heaped on the heretics of their day. The ancient heretics were primarily rejecting the truth of Orthodoxy; the Protestants were primarily rejecting the errors of Rome, and it is an error in historical methodology to equate the two. When at length they did come to discover Orthodoxy, they had already been too greatly affected by their western quarrel, and their conversations with us (one thinks of the Lutheran conversations with Jeremias II) were less times of true discovery than foraging parties for new ammo to use against Rome. Even now most Protestant groups cannot really hear our words; their ears are too full of their cannonade against Rome.
          All of this concerns the historical Reformation with its classic creeds, and the contemporary picture is complicated by the immense theological liberalization of most of the Protestant churches. Indeed, Luther today would certainly disown much of what passes for Lutheranism. But not all of the Protestants have followed in the broad way of liberalism. In my own experience, both past and present, I know of Protestant Christians who sincerely love Christ and strive to serve Him. Some have received clearly supernatural help, and their lives bear the undeniable stamp of the Holy Spirit. Their churches’ doctrine and the spiritual resources available to them there are still deficient, of course. They still remain in schism, and that comes at a price. But they have clearly experienced God’s grace. One may say, if one wishes, that such grace comes short of the new birth, but if a person can experience forgiveness, peace, and joy in Christ apart from the new birth, one might be forgiven for asking what exactly the new birth accomplished anyway. Surely it is better to recognize in these souls the new birth and presence of saving grace? I suggest that this grace comes to them apart from the Church, and apart from the Church’s sacraments, precisely because they are not like the heretics of old, but seek Christ according to the limited light given to them.
          I say this not just because to deny it I would have to deny the evidence of my own senses and experience of others. I also say it because to deny it I would have to deny what I have experienced in my own life—the only life about which I can speak authoritatively. Before I became Orthodox, I was a Christian in the world of charismatic Protestant Evangelicalism, and then in the world of conservative Anglicanism. I know perfectly well how deficient my theology was and how lacking my experience of the Faith’s fullness. I also know perfectly well that I had truly come to experience Christ’s saving grace nonetheless, and that this experience of grace formed a constant which continued in my life after I came to Orthodoxy, binding my pre-Orthodox life and my Orthodox life together into a single whole.
          It is true that receiving such grace apart from the Church’s sacraments would be unusual and not according to the usual pattern of covenantal initiation—though not out of character for the Lord who wishes all to be saved and who never rejects those who come to Him in faith. And such extra-sacramental bestowal of grace even has some Scriptural precedent: we think of Apollos who was clearly a Christian even before being baptized by the Church (Acts 18:25)—indeed, he is even described there as ζεων τω πνευματι/ zeon to pneumati, a phrase the RSV renders in Romans 12:11 as “aglow with the Spirit”. We think too of how the Holy Spirit fell upon a roomful of unbaptized Gentiles when they heard the Gospel from Peter with open hearts (Acts 10:44-48). These examples of course do not set a pattern for possible initiation. Even in their day, they were unusual. But they did reveal how God’s grace could precede sacramental administration, and how God is not bound to follow the normal ecclesiastical pattern. Apparently the Spirit really does blow where He wills (John 3:8).
          I suggest that we are currently experiencing the same kind of reality today, wherein certain people, canonically outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church, genuinely experience God’s saving grace. But before I suggest what this means, let me also first suggest what it does not mean. It does not mean that sacraments do not matter. It does not mean that doctrine does not matter. It does not mean that all churches are the same so that it does not matter which church one belongs to. It does not mean that sacraments are valid outside of the Orthodox Church. It does not mean that all Protestants are the same. It does not mean that the churches to which these saved individuals belong are part of an ecumenical super-church or “invisible church”. It does not mean that we Orthodox should not press and try to persuade all Christians to become Orthodox. It does not mean that the Fathers are not reliable guides, or that the Fathers were wrong. In our over-heated polemical climate, over-heated polemicists are keen to draw any number of these conclusions, but I would caution against it. None of these conclusions follow from my suggestion that men can be saved apart from inclusion in the Orthodox Church. We may debate what theological significance finding grace outside of Orthodoxy has for (say) our understanding of their sacraments or their ecclesial status, but the fact that grace can be found there should be beyond dispute.
          So, if saying that saving grace is found outside the Orthodox Church does not mean any of these things, what does it mean? In a word, it means that reality is messier and God’s love is bigger than any tidy system can easily handle. It means that as we walk through the world, we must give due weight to what our eyes can see and what our hearts can discern. To deny that some devout souls who love Christ and serve Him with all their strength and whose lives have born spiritual fruit for Him are Christians seems to involve a degree of blindness shared by the Pharisees of old. It involves also a curious insensitivity of spiritual palate, somehow equating Billy Graham and Mother Teresa with Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy. For there is clearly a deep and substantive difference between (say) conservative Reformed Anglicans like J.I. Packer and the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If the former are condemned as heretics, we must then find a new and stronger word for the latter, for by anyone’s sane figuring, the two groups are too dissimilar to be share the same label.
           The present ecumenical reality is therefore a new thing in the earth, and the patristic categories are insufficient to understand them, since the Fathers dealt with heretics of another kind. Things are changing quickly, as darkness and light increasingly separate from each other and we see fewer and fewer shades of grey. We may expect the liberal Protestant churches to become more and more estranged from us, as they reject not only our doctrine but our moral praxis as well. They will be the true heretics, like the heretics of old, and the patristic categories will apply to them in full. But there remain in Protestantism a few souls which have not bent to the knee to Baal. For them there is hope. We owe it to them to continue talking, recognize the grace within them, and to help bring them home. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Where Do You Worship?

          Our Divine Liturgy here at my parish of St. Herman’s does not actually occur in Langley, B.C.—nor, if it comes to that, does the Eucharist you attend occur in the city in which you live.  Rather, both of our Liturgies take place in the same place—in heaven.  Our bodies may be standing on earth on some terrestrial piece of prime real estate on Sunday morning, but the worship there still occurs not on earth but with Christ in heaven.  When the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews said, “We have an altar” (Hebrews 13:10), he was not talking about the table at which the first-century celebrant stood.  He was talking about the heavenly and ideal altar before the throne in heaven.  One can read all about it in the previous chapters of his letter:  Christ the great high-priest entered into the Holy Place in heaven through His own blood, appearing there in the presence of God on our behalf (Hebrews 9:11-12, 24).  It is before that throne that we appear on Sunday when we draw near to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). 
            St. Paul said the same thing.  God blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, and that is where we go to receive those blessings, for God raised us up with Christ made us sit with Him (literally, “co-sit with Him”, Greek sugkathizo) in the heavenlies (Ephesians 1:1, 2:6).  It is also what your priest says every Sunday.  Before he begins the anaphora, he bids you “Lift up your hearts!”, and you respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord!”  When he says, “Lift up your hearts”, he is not simply telling you to cheer up; he is telling you to ascend to heaven where the Lord is.  As Father Alexander Schmemann reminded us in his book For the Life of the World, Orthodox worship takes place in the key of ascent, not descent.  We do not ask for God’s grace to descend and come down upon us so much as we ask for that grace to help us ascend and to lift us up to Him.
            Given that our worship takes place in heaven it is not surprising to see so many icons on the walls around us, nor that we ask for the prayers of the Mother of God and the saints and angels.  Since we have ascended to heaven, we find ourselves invisibly surrounded by the saints who also stand with us in heaven’s court.  With what else should be adorn our church walls and icon corners but their images?  These images remind us of where we are.  And how could we not ask for their prayers and intercessions, since we stand alongside them?
            Realizing that our worship finds its true locus in heaven—both our corporate Eucharists on Sunday and our private prayers during the weekdays—should be a tremendous encouragement to us.  We might imagine that our little mission choir or aged cantor, perhaps singing a bit off-key, are on their own.  We might imagine that when we say our personal prayers while standing tired and distracted before our home icon corner, we also stand alone.  When the only voices we hear are ours and the few standing around us, we can sometimes feel like lonely soldiers, cut off from the rest of our battalion, struggling on our own, and might suppose that we are praying in isolation.  It is not so.  All of our prayers as Christians are offered in heaven, where we stand amidst a great and numberless throng.  We never pray alone, but as a part of that vast Body of Christ.  From that heavenly throng comes a great swelling chorus of praise, a thundering symphony, and we are called to add our few little notes to it.  We might think that if we skip our prayers our little contribution will not be missed.  This also is not so.  The One who hears the sparrow when it falls also hears whatever comes from our lips as well.  He listens to that chorus to hear our voice as well.  Let us not tire and faint and skip our prayers, thinking that we pray on our own and that no one will know or care if we stop praying.  We are part of a mighty choir in heaven, and our notes are needed.
           


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Can We Know for Sure Who is Saved?

          There are a number of people who are fairly certain that they can know—not guess, but know— who is lost and who is saved. Others on the opposite end of the omniscience scale assert emphatically that no one can know for sure if any particular person is lost or saved. The first group claim that total certitude is possible about such things; the latter group opts for total agnosticism. I quote representatives from both camps.
          A few years ago in our parish a convert from the Mennonite faith was discussing Orthodoxy with the father of another young man who also had recently converted. The father was concerned for his convert son’s soul, for in leaving Protestant Evangelicalism, the father believed that his son had left Christ. The former Mennonite knew how to speak “Evangelicalese” and strove in that language to convince the concerned father that his son still believed in Jesus and was not apostate. At the end of two hour’s discussion, he said to the father, “Let me ask you this: do you believe that I’m saved?” The response was immediate and emphatic: “I know you’re not.”
          The other example is more recent, and comes from the blogosphere. In the comments section of a piece written in First Things, one commenter got a little off topic and mentioned Osama bin Laden. He wrote, “The one person I know who sold his soul to the devil is now burning in hell! Osama bin Laden is definitely not being taken care of by 72 virgins but rather, being toasted like marshmallow and hotdog by the devil and his cohorts. He's now wailing and gnashing his teeth for being fooled by the same being he sold his soul into.” This elicited the reply from another commentator, “By what means do you know this, good sir? For this is more than I know.” The latter commentator was clearly reluctant to pronounce definitively on the state of anyone’s soul, not just bin Laden’s.
          What are we to make of all this? Is certainty possible in any particular case? In a few cases, I suggest that such certainty is possible—namely, in the cases of Judas Iscariot, the devil, and his angels, the demons. I say this on the basis of Christ’s words. Regarding Judas He said that he was “a devil” (John 6:70), and a “son of perdition”—i.e. someone lost (John 17:12), and that it would have been better for him if he had never been born (Mark 14:21). By any plain and unbiased reading of these texts, Christ is saying that Judas will not be saved. It is the same with the damnation of the devil—the Scripture plainly states that he will be “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Similarly with the demons: Christ spoke of Gehenna as having been “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), which would be odd if the devil and his angels will somehow avoid it. Note that in these cases, one is not left guessing because one possesses a clear and authoritative word from Christ on the very subject. Speaking with certitude in these cases does not indicate hubris on the part of the speaker, but humility: Christ has given His verdict, and a humble heart will accept it, even if it trembles all the while.
          But, it seems to me, all other cases must partake of less certitude. The New Testament tells us who will be lost in the sense of “what kind of person” will be lost, but that is all. It does not attach an authoritative list. Thus we read that a person will be lost if he is one of those who is “selfishly ambitious and who [does] not obey the truth, but [obeys] unrighteousness” (Romans 2:8), if he who “practice such things” as “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21), if he hates his brother (1 John 3:15), if he “[does] not obey the Son” (John 3:36). That is, we are offered the profile of the damned, but not God’s verdict on any particular individual about whether or not they fit that profile. And surely it is easy to see why? God wants us to look mostly at our own sins, not the sins of others; the Judge of all the earth does not require our help in this regard.
          This means that for some people we may have almost no knowledge of their interior state (and thus of their eternal fate), and for others we may have greater or lesser degrees of knowledge. For example, I do not know for absolute certainty that Mother Teresa (that happy and oft-used example) will be saved. But if I had to place a bet, I think it is highly probable—so highly probable, in fact, that the psychological degree of probability is indistinguishable from certainty.
          Or take the other unhappy example of Osama bin Laden. I do not know for absolute certainty that he was damned, and that he is now “being toasted like marshmallow and hotdog by the devil and his cohorts”. It is possible that before he was unexpectedly shot and killed he had re-thought his whole life and repented. The same with Hitler (and other oft-cited example of someone lost). I do not know that he is damned. Possibly just as he pulled the trigger to blow his brains out he too repented. But the element of doubt in my mind about his damnation is not very large. I do know that the plea of “invincible ignorance” as a defense will only go so far, and probably not far enough to cover the cases of bin Laden and Hitler. I would still say that the fact their damnation is “more than I know”. But most of the things on which we base our life are degrees of probability, not absolute certainties.
          For example, I do not know that the lottery ticket in my hand (that is, my metaphorical hand; I never buy lottery tickets) is not the winning ticket, and that I will not soon be five million dollars richer. But the astronomical odds against it serve to reduce the high probability to a virtual psychological certainty. (That, of course, is what makes the actual winners so news-worthy.) I do not know for absolute certainty that I will not be struck by lightning today after I get out of bed (about 330 people are struck by lightning each year in the U.S.), but the high degree of probability is in my favour and so I will live the day as if I knew it would not happen and not keep looking nervously skyward if it begins to rain. The same thing attends other basic beliefs that govern our lives—pretty everything is a matter of probability, not of mathematical certainty, but to live sanely we often must collapse the two into one.
I suggest therefore that although we cannot know for absolute certainty that certain individuals are damned, about a spectacular few of them we can hazard a pretty good guess. A better question though than “Will this person be saved?” is “What does God want me to do today?” Regarding that question, we can have complete certainty. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Tame Lion

There is a new product on the theological market, Universalism, which advertises a new and improved deity, one much better than the old deity offered by such men as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards—and John Chrysostom. The old deity could be wrathful, and would consign impenitent sinners to an eternal hell, an unquenchable fire. The new and improved deity is much nicer: he would never damn anyone eternally, and offers the good news that all will eventually be saved, no matter what their choices during their life. (One version of this deity declares that, well, it is true that not everyone will be saved, but at least no one will suffer eternally, for the non-saved will be incinerated into non-existence shortly after their resurrection and condemnation. This view shares with Universalism the conviction that a God of love would never damn anyone or allow them to suffer eternally.)
          The new deity is marketed as a “more Christlike God”—meaning presumably more Christlike than the God proclaimed by the Church in the previous two millennia. This God, whether or not more Christlike, is certainly nicer and safer than the deity previously proclaimed. His only concern, seemingly, is love, which has eclipsed any concern for justice to the point of its effective obliteration. St. Paul would have us behold both the kindness and the severity of God—those who fell into apostasy who know His severity, but those who believed in Christ would know His kindness (Romans 11:22). In the new deity one finds only kindness. This Aslan is an emphatically tame lion.
          I suspect this deity is popular with many in our generation because he bears a striking resemblance to ourselves. That is, this deity is tolerant, patient, loving, peaceable, accepting, all-embracing, all-forgiving, and emphatically non-judgmental—the very virtues at which our own generation excels and specializes. Wrath and vengeance against evil are foreign to his nature; he is not concerned with justice but only that his children enter into Paschal joy. He fits in well with our secular culture because, in fact, he is a creation of that culture. Universalism has remade the Biblical God into its own image. Naturally we find this God more congenial—we invented him and made him to look like ourselves.
          But this deity bears little resemblance to the God of the Old Testament. That God was a man of war (Exodus 15:3), one who would wrap Himself in the garments of vengeance and go forth to wage war against the ungodly of the earth, staining His raiment in their justly-shed blood (Isaiah 59:17, 63:1-6). Though He did not desire the death of the wicked, but rather their repentance, He would mete out death to the wicked if they refused to repent (Ezekiel 33:11-13).
          It is no good at this point invoking the long-exorcised spirit of Marcion, in an attempt to oppose the merciful deity of New Testament to the blood-thirsty one of Old Testament. All the pages of the Scriptures, both New Testament and Old, declare both the severity and the kindness of this God. Christ is no different than His Father, and Universalist attempts to be more Christlike than Christ can only do so by ignoring much of the New Testament picture of Jesus.
          For the Universalists not only must discount the picture of God portrayed throughout the Old Testament, but must also discount much of the New Testament picture of our Lord as well. Christ is not only the one who welcomed and refused to condemn the penitent sinner (Luke 7:36f, John 8:2f), He is also the one who emphatically condemned the impenitent Pharisees. He called them sons of Gehenna, and said that the devil was their father, and that they could not hope to avoid the sentence of Gehenna themselves (Matthew 23:15, John 8:44, Matthew 23:33). The cities that rejected Him He condemned to be brought down into Hades, where they would find the fate of Sodom preferable to the one awaiting them on the day of judgment (Matthew 11:23-24). At the Second Coming He will deal out retribution in flaming fire to those who do not know God and who disobey the Gospel, as they pay the penalty of eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). In His revelation to the seven churches of Asia He declared that He would wage war with the sword of His mouth against those who fell into worldliness, killing them with pestilence so that all the churches might know that He was the one who searched the minds and hearts, rewarding each one according to his deeds (Revelation 2:16, 23). It is unlikely that those who offer a more Christlike God are thinking of these parts of the New Testament picture of Christ. They prefer to excise such verses from their Bibles, and dwell only upon the verses which present Christ as the friend of sinners.
          The Church throughout the ages has preserved in its picture of Christ the Scriptural balance between severity and kindness. It knows He is both the friend and advocate of penitent sinners who desires the salvation of all, and is also the just judge who metes out divine vengeance upon those who refuse to repent. Christ, like His Father, is both severe and kind, the one who opens heaven to the penitent sinner and condemns to hell the evil man who refuses repentance. The Church has always known this, Origen and his few Universalist friends notwithstanding. St. Paul knew it. St. John the Theologian knew it. St. John Chrysostom knew it. The Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council knew it. Even Mr. Beaver, (in the Lewis classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) knew it. They knew that Christ our God is not a tame lion and that He is not safe. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Genesis Creation Stories

Possibly no part of the Bible arouses more controversy and strong feeling than its opening two chapters on the creation of the world.  In one corner of the cultural boxing ring we have those who regard those chapters as a literal description of how the world was made (with some exegetical wiggle room about the definition of the word “yom/ day”, and therefore about the age of the cosmos), and in the other corner we have those who regard such Creation Science (as it has been called) as self-evident nonsense, regarding Creation Scientists themselves as medieval obscurantist throwbacks.   In this contest much time is spent arguing for or against “the Theory of Evolution”.  I suggest that though it makes for great cultural theatre, both sides are misreading those opening chapters, which can only be read correctly when anchored in their cultural context.
            John Walton, Old Testament prof at the evangelical Wheaton College, has done just such an anchoring job, and the results of his research can be found in his books Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament and The Lost World of Genesis One.  Following him, I would suggest that the creation stories do not intend to teach science or update the cosmology of its original audience.  The Hebrews who first received these stories shared a cosmology similar to everyone else in their day.  They believed (for example) that the sky was solid (a belief reflected in the Septuagint term for “firmament” in Genesis 1:6, stereoma, defined by one lexicon as “the solid part”), and that it was this solid sky which separated the waters above from the waters below.  We moderns know that the sky is not solid, and so like to imagine that “the waters which were above the sky” must refer to clouds.  In fact in doing so we read our modern cosmology into the text throughout, with a well-intentioned eisegesis.  (We see such eisegesis in the visual depiction of the creation in the 2014 film Noah where the divine command “Let there be light” was fulfilled in an original “big bang”, when in fact it was fulfilled in the creation of time.  Read the text carefully:  the light was called “Day”, and was contrasted to “Night”.) 
It seems that God was content to leave this ancient Near Eastern cosmology intact.  He did not intend to give lessons in geography or astronomy, or teach that the world was round and of great age.  These lessons would have meant nothing to their original hearers and done nothing to change or enrich their lives.  God had more revolutionary and important lessons to teach in those early chapters, lessons which did not involve proclaiming a new cosmology which would only have bewildered its original hearers.
Foremost among those lessons was this:  that their God, the deity worshipped by an obscure Hebrew set of tribes, was the creator, owner, and sovereign over the whole earth.   Other pagan cosmologies mentioned a number of gods, and all of these are conspicuously absent from the opening chapters of Genesis. There Elohim (or Yahweh Elohim as He is called in Genesis 2:4) is the only One involved in the earth’s creation.  The other gods, the deities of the rival nations, do not even warrant a mention, doubtless because they were nothings, phantoms, idols.  The subtextual message?  “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). This message needed to be heard, both then and now, as the People of God felt themselves powerless before greater international forces and mightier tyrannies.  Israel need fear nothing, for their God was Lord of heaven and earth.
Another lesson involved the dignity of man.  In the other ancient cosmologies, man was simply the provider of food for the gods, the keeper of their temples.   The king was made in the divine image, and might be properly regarded as the son of the deity, but the common man (and still more, the common woman) was of no account and of little worth.  Against this cultural background, the Genesis creation stories declare that both the common man and the common woman were made in the divine image.  Humanity did not exist simply to feed the gods; they existed as God’s regents and viceroys on the earth.  They existed to subdue the earth and have dominion over it in God’s Name, which is what it meant to be God’s image.  And note please:  women shared this dominion equally with men (Genesis 1:27-28).  The Genesis text proclaimed not only the monotheistic sovereignty of God, but also the revolutionary dignity of the common person.  The lowest mud-covered peasant working the fields was God’s image, created to rule in His place.  It was a more important lesson than any merely astronomical one, and a lesson we have not yet learned. 
Perhaps we should return to the opening chapters of Genesis and read it with fresh eyes and a teachable heart.  We are tempted to look out over a world terrorized by ISIS and rent by defections from the European Union with trepidation, and conclude that perhaps things are beginning to spin out of control.  It is not so.  Our God is still sovereign over the nations and directs the affairs of the world to fulfill His own hidden purposes.  He who first created the world has not abandoned it, nor gone on some long heavenly Sabbatical.  He continues to reign over His the creation.  Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.  As we work to do His will in the world, we can let our hearts find peace in that sovereignty. 


Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Lethal Legacy

A friend of mine just returned from back east where he had attended the funeral of a friend and was mightily impressed by it—but not in a good way.  The deceased was an older woman who had died, leaving behind a grieving family who loved her very much.  The eulogy applauded her as a devoted wife, a steadfast friend, and an apparently perfect mother.  Chief among her virtues was her devotion to her sons, as expressed by her spending time with them whenever possible.  Indeed while they were growing up she would rise early every Sunday morning and take them with her to (wait for it) a thrift store.  It was a special time for them all to be together and to pass a leisurely time relaxing and browsing among the discarded donations of others.  The point of these weekly trips on a Sunday morning was not acquisition, but recreation, a time to spend unhurried hours with her children.   The point was stressed not only by her own children in their touching reminiscences, but by others in their eulogies also.  What better way to spend a Sunday morning could there be?
            The person presiding at the funeral (which was held not in a church building, despite the deceased’s membership in a Ukrainian church and her pride in her Ukrainian heritage, but in a funeral home) was a dear friend of the family.  He also spoke admiringly of her exemplary life.  He spoke movingly about the hope of resurrection, and about God’s love.  He even read from the Bible and prayed.
            It was just here that my eastern friend had to resist squirming and began to be unimpressed.  From the encouraging tenor of the remarks one gathered that everyone who died would find a resurrection of joy, and that bliss awaited us all on the other side.  The speaker stressed that life was a miracle and that surely something as miraculous as life could be expected to end in something equally wonderful.  St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians about Christ’s triumph over death and the joy it brought were applied to all.  The word “repentance” was not heard, much less stressed.  Apparently all that was required to enter into the joy of one’s Lord was the fact of one’s birth.  This being the case, why not spend Sunday morning at a thrift store?
            Obviously it is not the place of anyone living to pass judgment on the soul of the dear woman whose funeral I described, nor to opine what her final score will be on the Last Day.  What transpired between her and God in the hidden privacy of her heart in the moments before her death is not known, and anyway is none of our business.  We must leave her eternal fate in the hands of God.  But we may still offer judgment on how exemplary or otherwise were some of her practices for one striving to be a Christian.  In particular I suggest that she left a lethal legacy to her sons by rising early and taking them every Sunday morning to that thrift store.  Though she did not mean to teach such a lesson, she left her boys with the perhaps indelible impression that Christ and His Church did not matter—or at least that they mattered less than rummaging among the things discarded by others and available cheaply at a public market.   Each Sunday morning presented them with a choice:  either they could have the Body and Blood of Christ our God, or they could have the possibility of finding a bargain in a bin.  She was teaching them, week after week, to choose the latter.
            She thereby offers us a cautionary tale to us all.   How do we spend our Sunday mornings?  At a thrift store?  On a golf course?  Before the television set?  Jogging on the road for our health?  Sleeping in?  And if we choose any of these options, what are we teaching others by these choices?  Confidence in the face of death is not derived simply from the accident of being born, but by the continued choice of repentance and faith.  The Lord and His apostle were not addressing their words of consolation to the general public, but to His devout disciples.   The funeral offices of the Orthodox Church also presuppose such devotion on the part of the dead.  Paschal joy in the face of death comes not so much from being a good person (whatever that means) or a devoted parent, but from a life of faithfulness to the risen Christ.