Audio length: 16:39 minutes
Transcript published: October 10, 2012
Fr. Stephen continues his look at the world from an Orthodox perspective.
We continue today with our talk about Christianity in a One-Story Universe. It began with explaining that we oftentimes in our modern secularized world, when it comes to spiritual things, live in what feels like a two-story universe. The first story, which we live, is a secularized world in which God is removed other than in special cases and that spiritual things, things that we speak of as having eternal verity about them, we relegate to a second story.
Of course, the difficulty with having this kind of imaginary world is that if you live on the first floor, it’s very difficult to even be certain that there is anything on the second floor. And so this gives rise to certain forms of atheism, even in the modern world, and certainly a great deal of questioning belief.
What I want to speak about today takes us just to the question of language itself; the words we use when we speak about our faith; and what do words mean if we actually and truly only live in a one story universe; that God is present everywhere and filling all things. What do words mean?
It seems to me that much of our religious vocabulary, defined many times just during the past 500 years, has been formed and shaped to speak a two-story world. Words such as faith or believe and their relatives belong somehow to a portion of the world that is not first story. As soon as you enter them into a conversation, people immediately assume you’re talking about something that’s removed; something that cannot be proved; something that belongs to another world.
These words are keys to the second story and are therefore, unconvincing to the ultimate, modern one-story folk – the atheist. The abstracted notions of things like imputed righteousness, when the meaning is something other than an actual reality within the person of whom we are speaking (imputed meaning as in the mind of God), words like these are tailor-made for a two-story world. It’s little wonder that much religious discourse takes place in the abstracted world of the second story.
Much of doctrinal discussion is little more than moving around air or digital events and not about anything that someone is actually doing. And of course, there are plenty of hucksters on the first floor who make false claims and boast of false gifts; televangelists playing baseball with the Holy Spirit (I’m not making this up.), as if God were a ball of energy to be hurled across the stage at so many bowling pin believers.
This is silliness, just plain silliness, driven by our desperation for the marriage of the first and second story. Such hunger will always produce false prophets. Simon Magus, who was one of the first false prophets in the 1st Century, was only the first in a very long line. But I believe it’s equally tragic when those who claim to be teachers of the Kingdom of God are in fact only Sophists, able to manipulate words and symbols in discussions about what the floor plan or the stairs to the second story must be like, but without anything other than theory to guide.
Where is the honest teacher who is able to say, “I don’t know.”? So for the moment, I’ll give you this question, what should religious language look like if it is not the language of a two-story universe? What do words mean in a one-story universe? Well, we’ll give some particular attention to this today, especially by looking at the language of providence, which comes up very frequently in the Fathers and in the teaching of great spiritual elders in our modern time.
For instance, in the Morning Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina, which is a very popular Orthodox prayer that is included in most books of prayers for use in the morning, we have a version of a prayer that can be found in similar form, sometimes by other names in Orthodoxy, but certainly a prayer that expresses a very common thought. This is how the prayer goes:
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will. At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee. Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.
Though the prayer states that “all is sent down from Thee,” I would not necessarily describe this as “two-story” language, though it could easily be taken that way. More to my point is the assumption of the prayer that God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Equally that, “in Him we live and move and have our being.”
There has been something of an abandonment of the concept of providence in many theological corners in modern times – probably brought on from the crisis within theodicy (the technical word for the understanding of the relationship between God and evil – or the question, “How is God just or good?”) The events of the 20th century, particularly the horrors of modern war and the like, have tended to push the question of God’s providential involvement with the everyday world to the outer realm of theological discourse. When I attended a modern Protestant seminary back in the 70’s, not once was the subject of Providence even discussed. It simply had no place at the table.
Of course, if we are to speak in a one-story manner, Providence, God’s involvement with everything that is, cannot be avoided. Interestingly, it is not only not avoided by contemporary Orthodox spiritual teaching, it remains very much in the fore. The late Russian elder, Fr. Ioan Krestiankin, speaks constantly of God’s providence in his recently published letters. This language, interestingly, comes from one who spent part of his Christian life in the Soviet Gulag. Such mindless suffering seems to have had no effect on his perception of God’s providence.
However, many are appropriately nervous when they read accounts such as those of the monks at St. Antony’s monastery in Egypt, which I spoke about in my last podcast. The hucksterism and spiritual delusion that are rampant in some Christian circles can easily and appropriately make people shy – who wants to live in delusion?
Thus, I think that as Christians we approach the abandonment of a two-story universe very slowly. Above everything we begin to move our Christian life out of the realm of the abstract and into the realm of our actual living. We pray rather than thinking about prayer. We trust God rather than discussing the concept of trusting God. We act on the basis of faith rather than spending time talking about the importance of faith. We make every effort to embrace God as good and at work in all things.
I suppose this is a return in my writing to the concept of small things, the immediate things. But this is where we live, and it is where we are being saved. Spending time removed from where we are living and where we are being saved is frequently just a waste of time. So much of the Orthodox faith has this very concrete character about it. I have come to some fairly simple practices in my life as a priest. When someone calls me at Church to ask for prayer, particularly for matters of great moment, I leave the office, go in the Church, and offer a Molieben, which is a short service of prayer, designed particularly for just such occasions. It takes about 20 minutes, but it’s what I was asked to do – to pray, not just to think about them, but to pray.
By the same token we bring our faith into this blessed first story, indeed probably the only story of the universe, by doing here what we were commanded to do – pray, give, forgive, love, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. It is in such straightforward activities rather than in the abstractions that would call us away that we will find Christ, the saints, the angels and the whole of our faith.
Well, having pointed out that much popular Christian language and some images in sacred texts lend themselves to the notion of a two-story universe and having noted that the second story is a dwelling place of things spiritual that have almost insurmountable problems, how should we speak about such things? How should we speak about spiritual things in our life, if we’re not just relegating them to a second story?
First, it seems that it’s worth thinking about what the words we use really mean in the first place. Perhaps the most common and universally used prayer in the Christian faith is the one taught us by Christ Himself. The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven…” or does it? The text in the Greek varies. In some cases it reads “in the heavens” (plural) in others simply, “in heaven.”
Of course Christian theology teaches us that though we may use spatial language to speak of God, we cannot say that there is some space “up there” where God dwells. God is not a creature such that He needs a place to dwell. In that sense, the word “heaven” becomes something of a grammatical place holder, a word that allows us to speak of “where” God is – all of which is fine – unless we become literal about it and make God subject to limitations that are simply incorrect. In that sense “heaven” is as “unspatial” as God is Himself.
If you read classical theological texts such as those of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, it is quite clear that the Church has always understood that God is utterly transcendent. He is “beyond being,” the Fathers say. The Fathers would say, in speaking of God’s Being, that in comparison to our “being,” God is not – meaning that though we speak of ourselves as having “being,” the “Being” that God has is wholly other and is not to be thought of as having an existence that is like our existence.
In the same vein, the Fathers teach us that God is completely beyond our knowing. Or as Father Thomas Hopko says, “It is impossible to know God – but you have to know Him to know that.” This, of course, plays on the understanding that the God who is beyond knowledge, who could not have been known by us, willingly made Himself known, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. Thus Christ will say that “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt. 11:27).
Christ’s promise to us is that “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). It doesn’t say that if you do this you will have visions of a second story heaven or such things. The language is very first story. Eat, drink, abide. The words are very here and now, though they change the nature of here and now. We are suddenly indwelt by Someone Whom even the universe cannot contain. That reality changes us.
This morning I was thinking on these things as I celebrated the Divine Liturgy. It is quite clear in the Liturgy that the “here and now” has something completely different about it because of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. For instance the Liturgy says:
Remembering this saving commandment, that is, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming.
It is fairly commonplace in Orthodoxy to note that Chrysostom’s Liturgy speaks of the Second Coming in the past tense. Not because we believe that Christ came for a second time at some time in the past, but that because of what is happening in the Liturgy, we may speak of the Second Coming in the past tense. We, in the Liturgy, are standing at the Messianic Banquet. If it is Christ who dwells in us and we in Him, then how is it possible that we are not with Him at the beginning and the end, since He Himself is the Beginning and the End?
The coming of Christ into our world, or rather the manifestation of God to us in this world, has radically changed this world. Part of the proclamation of the Orthodox faith is the true nature of life in this world. We sing, “God is with us! Understand Ye nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!” We sing that in the service of Compline.
If God is with us, then what must this world truly be? The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep and had a dream. In the dream he saw a ladder stretching “from the earth into heaven.” He saw angels ascending and descending on the ladder. When he awoke he made a very strange statement (at least from the perspective of our post-Freudian world). The Scriptures say:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17).
Of course, Jacob made a very first-story response. He set up a stone, poured oil on it (consecrating it) and promised to serve God and to give Him the tenth of all he had. It is incorrect to think of the world of our faith in two-story form. The Incarnation, at the very least, reveals that to be not the case. God is with us and has come to abide in us, and that truly makes this story, this world in which we live, the story. Glory to God.