A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn’t address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?”
The elements of Austenland are terrific: It has a clever premise, is based on a successful novel, has Jerusha Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite) in the director’s chair, and stars cute, likeable Keri Russell and funny, dependable Jennifer Coolidge. It’s produced by Stephanie Meyer who, whatever you think of the Twilight novels, should at least know something about marketability. But somehow the parts don’t come together.
[July 19, 2013. If you want to follow the conversation in order and read all the comments, here is the original post that Rod put on his blog; and here’s the link if you’d just like to read only what I said (the original post and followup responses).]
There were a flood of comments to the post on Rod’s blog, and the discussion went in all sorts of directions, but I had the feeling my central point wasn’t being understood—probably because my original post (a hasty email to Rod) was ranty and overstated. I hope it’s not unfair to say, but I kept noticing commenters who appeared to be ignoring the point I was actually making, in favor of a point they wished I’m made, because it would be stupid and easy to ridicule. Well, what can you do. (It kind of proves my point about peer pressure, though…see below.)
On the other hand, the point I was actually making may have been so unfamiliar and strange to them that they just couldn’t grasp it. In our culture, it’s just unheard of for anyone to criticize purely intellectual theorizing. It’s an occupation that is regarded as so lofty and admirable.
I’ve tried in various ways to clarify my point and make it more briefly and accurately that I did in the initial hot-headed post. But, well, here’s one more try. What I wanted to defend was the idea that theology must be approached prayerfully, and not as if it were an objective science.
When theology is connected with adoration of God, love of God, expectation of his love, humble seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help (the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth,” John 16:13), it is like plugging a lamp into a socket. The circuit is made, and your mind—your receptive, perceptive mind, not the analytical one—is flooded with illumination. If your insight was authentic, it will bear fruit in your life and the lives of others down the centuries. That’s why we continue to read the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers: the insights they give continue to illuminate us.
But if no connection with God is sought, if it’s just you and your high IQ, you’re left with a lamp that may well be complicated or aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. And if you get too absorbed in studying the rivets that hold the lamp together, and arguing with other experts about the metal composition of the lamp, it can be actually detrimental to your mind. You can latch onto theological ideas that are, in fact, not accurate, and refuse to let them go. I think we’ve seen this a few times in church history.
The further point I tried to make, and maybe can’t express, is that focusing on philosophy / theology only in the abstract seems also to be detrimental to your heart. People don’t do theology in a vacuum but in a community with other theological thinkers, where there’s jealousy, vanity, hurt pride, all those things. And the climate can easily get ugly. Oddly enough, it can result in people investing great emotion into things that aren’t even logical—though they pride themselves on being practioners of the art of exacting, logical truth. I told the story of how seminarians cheered an elderly professor for “zinging” me, even though his remarks were not coherent or relevant to anything I’d written. People just don’t realize how much peer pressure, the desire for peer acclamation, influences them.
Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors. This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome world.
The bent toward purely theoretical theology is something that surprises people who come from an Eastern Christian tradition. This never took hold in the East, but theology was always conditioned by communion with God. (As Orthodox theologians participate and write in Western settings, they tend to assume the prevailing terms of culture, though.)
Many believe this change got under way with St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th c. I heard somebody say that you can notice such a difference btw St Augustine (4th-5th c) and Aquinas. Augustine does theology within a mental setting of prayer and adoration; with Aquinas, it became an objective science, based on the fallacy that you can talk about God while he’s out of the room. And, as I pointe out, at the end of his life, Aquinas had a vision, and afterward abandoned his theological writing. He said that all that intellectual labor now seemed to him like straw. His words should be framed on the wall anytime anyone does theology.
Fr. Tom Hopko addressed the falleness of reason in more direct words than mine; see the accompanying post.
[These remarks were transcribed from an audio recording of a Q & A period following a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in NY, at a conference for Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, July 2008]
Moderator of panel, to Fr. Tom Hopko: You were quite dismissive of Veritatis and Fides et Ratio. Do you feel that philosophy should have a very, very marginal place in theologizing? If so, I would suggest that one of the problems we have, when trying to get people to read the Fathers as well as the scriptures, is the amount of philosophy in writers like Gregory the Theologian and Maximos the Confessor. If this is what the patristic revival is supposed to get us reading, after of course we’ve dealt with the scriptures on a daily basis, then we’ve got a problem. I just wanted to throw that out because I’m inclined to be much more favorably disposed to certain kinds of philosophizing within a theological tradition. It’s appropriate to point out that Splendor Veritatis and Ratio et Fidem, whatever you think of the encyclicals as such, they’re coming out of that tradition where philosophy is considered to be an appropriate, worthy handmaid.
Hopko: That’s a huge topic. I don’t think there is such thing as philosophy or theology. There are people—who think, who act, who interact. Frankly, I do not believe that the Eastern fathers chose Platonism and built a theology upon it; they were just people in their culture, speaking and acting and defending the Gospel.
I think part of the problem that we have today is, if we’re going to say that Philosophia is the ancilla theologia (handmaid of theology), which seems to be defended at least in Ratio et Fide, then you have a hard time saying why can’t you use Marxism as your philosophical foundation, why can’t you use Heidegger. When you choose Aristotle, you immediately have a problem with all of the Church Fathers. Gregory the Theologian said the philosophers are constantly in labor and never give birth. And he also said that we speak, “according to the fishermen and not according to Aristotle.”
The Fathers were cultured people of their time. If you’re a cultured person in a society, speaking to cultured people, you’re going to speak a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that they selected a philosophy, taught it for three years, and then built a theology on top of it; it doesn’t mean, as even—I think it’s one of those, Ratio et Fides, I believe—says, they were also restructuring and refining the words that they were speaking.
For example, Nicaea said that if anyone confesses that the Logos is another hypostasis (essence) or ousia (being) of God the Father, let him be anathema. If that’s the case, all the Cappadocians are anathema. And so is all subsequent ecumenical theology, because they did make a distinction of hypostasis and ousia after Nicaea. So the words were more fluid.
The other thing that bothers me, forgive my response, is bringing in the Magisterium all of a sudden. Well, it’s not a joke—it’s not a secret, I should say, and it is even something of a joke—but the Eastern Orthodox, as you know, have no Magisterium. That’s one of the big differences, because to us the Magisterium is just another theological position, despite holding a certain authority in the Roman Catholic Church. So the cop-out every time seems to be referring to the Magisterium.
That’s a huge problem for a guy like me. Because we just fight it out. That’s why in my talk this morning I mentioned the Fathers who fought with each other over theological ideas. There was no appeal to a Magisterium; they just fought it out.
The other thing I didn’t like was the use of the term “autonomy.” There is no “reason alone” that you can appeal to, that you can build a theological system on, from the basis of scriptural texts.
When I was a young guy at a Jesuit college, the Jesuits used to say that you could be an atheist, but if you’ve got the right data, the right reasoning, and the right philosophy, you can do Christian theology and yet not even be a believer. That’s impossible for a guy like me.
At the same time, what is autonomy but the nous? The ratio, human reason, is fallen too! There is no “reason alone.” People are filled with hang-ups and passions and prejudices, even when they’re philosophers—as you may have noticed.
So I think the problem is if you choose a philosophia and then it somehow gets blessed by the Magisterium, and then you have to follow it, and then you teach the students who come—I just can’t handle that. I don’t know what to do with it. A guy like Maximos or Gregory, sure they were using Platonic concepts, and essence and energy are pure Aristotle. But you don’t have to be an Aristotelian to understand these ideas.
If I said to my mother—I always use my mother as an example. I talked about my mother so much at the seminary that they called her the Tomotokos. But if I said to my mom, “What is that?,” she’d say “That’s a tree.” I’d ask what kind of tree it is—I don’t know, a palm tree. “But why do you call it a tree?” “Well I don’t know it looks like a tree, it acts like a tree.” “But it’s different from that tree, right?” “Oh yes, it’s different.” I’d say, “Mom, you just talked about hypostasis, essence, and energies. You know it’s a tree because it acts like a tree, but a hypostasis because it is that one and not that one.” That’s it. They were just using the tools at hand.
Returning to autonomy, there just isn’t any “reason alone” that you can appeal to. Because, according to our Eastern theology, the mind is fallen too. We’re not Calvinists, with some idea of radical depravity. We know the image of God can’t be totally obliterated. But it is fallen, it is screwed up, and unless it is illumined and saved by the Lord, it cannot function properly. And if you’re not following a holy praxis, your mind’s not going to work right. So, who are you appealing to, when you’re appealing to their mind? Who is that person, with a non-fallen mind?
In the scientific realm, it’s no problem. A friend of mine who worked at MIT told me that the guy who worked in the next booth always listened to pornographic radio while he worked. Well, all he was doing was studying fruit flies, so that didn’t matter much. But he couldn’t be a theology teacher; he couldn’t have a mind that was working right, in the realm of God, if he’s listening to pornography, because his mind is defective.
Now, St Paul in his letter to the Romans says that there is always that heteros nomos, that other law, working in our members, so there is no autonomy at all to human beings. If we are under the law of the Holy Spirit and life, then we’re free, and we are able to be self-determinate, we have exousia and we can act. But if not, we’re not just human, we’re actually in the hands of evil powers. The other heteros nomos is the nomos tis harmartia kai thanatou, the law of sin and death. So there’s always this other law working in our members. Our Eastern Christian tradition would say that there is no “reason alone” or philosophy which you can first adopt, and then build theology upon it, to be sanctioned by the church and blessed by the Magisterium, and then guided by when it happens to be wrong. You can’t have it both ways.
This would be the big thing, because I think that, well, we Orthodox would say that there is no Magisterium at all. There is the community of the faithful, there is the Holy Spirit, there is the preaching of the gospel, we work it out. We even think that the Magisterium can be wrong. Then you have a big problem; when is the Magisterium speaking, and when is the Magisterium not speaking?
A guy like me would say, if you’ve got that power from God, why are you messing around with an ordinary Magisterium? Just make the decrees. The ordination of women, for instance. If you’ve got it, use it.
So it becomes very confusing. That’s why I say, when a guy like me reads that I have big problems. That was my point.
Of course there are all kinds of good stuff in those documents. There are all kinds of scriptural teachings and quotes and truth. That’s actually part of the problem for me, because I can’t understand how he can say this and also say that. I don’t see how it hangs together. But the big problem of “reason alone,” with theology as a donum superadditum, an added gift, where you can appeal to—I don’t know, a Muslim, because he’s got a mind—I just don’t think that’s the Christian faith. I don’t think that that is how Christians look at humanity. I just don’t. Anyway, better stop on that one.
[July 27, 2013] This was an email to my friend Rod Dreher, which he posted on his blog at The American Conservative. It drew many comments, and my response to them is here as well.
After further conversation with Rod I understood better what I was trying to say. (In practice, try to do those two steps in the opposite order.) I see that my objection is to the custom of purely intellectual theologizing, separated from communion with God. It’s not a particularly original point, for many Orthodox have reflected on the negative effects of Western over-intellectualizing of theology (often pointing to St. Thomas Aquinas as a turning point.) Ongoing intellectualizing of theology is, I believe, less objective and accurate than participants suppose, and much more affected by peer pressure. (I’ll tell a story about that below, at the end.)
But I’m not making a blanket objection to theology. Something like the Nicene Creed, won at great cost, is of great value, not because it’s objectively true (even though it is that), but because it undergirds and nurtures prayer and direct experience of God. All theology should pass that test.
1. Rod, I noticed belatedly your post on this subject and it seemed too late to get in on the discussion. But it is something I’ve been thinking about lately because I feel like I don’t understand what people are talking about. I feel like it is so very different for me.
Primary, for me, is the experience of God’s presence. Right from the start, almost 40 years ago, that electrifying experience, that voice that “speaks with authority,” that’s absolutely primary.
And it is the experience of a person, not a spiritual shimmer or “oneness with the universe.” It has all the complexity and beauty of personality, though it’s clear that what I can encounter is only the very surface of the reality; it’s just, it’s all I can grasp. Anything further would explode me.
Secondary is community, by which I don’t mean my local church, as wonderful and essential as that is. I mean all the other people in the world and through all time who have experienced this same person. When I read their descriptions, I can tell it is the same person. We see different aspects, like someone who meets my dentist in the grocery store sees different aspects, but it is indisputably the same person. Again, that powerful authority, that essence of both life and love, beyond description, beyond comprehension, just resonates across the years. It’s the same person, and when I meet someone who saw him too, even if that person died a thousand years ago, even if that person is in a church with very different theology, I know I have found a brother or sister.
Third is the teaching of the Church. Here’s how I understand that. The Church is the safe place to be. I can safely believe everything the Church teaches. It will not harm me, and in fact it will equip me to grow and grow and have a better and better ability to experience that direct presence. I can see the evidence: others who have accepted the Church’s teachings and followed its ascetic practices grow and grow and grow! The light of Christ sometimes shines through them literally! That’s what I want to follow! It’s not, is the Church right about this or that; it’s, does it work. The Church is a machine designed to do something. Does it work? Absolutely! Just look at all those saints! Let me in there!
So I don’t have to question the Church’s teachings; I’m not interested in questioning them. I think to myself, even if I found out in heaven that this is a little off target or not quite accurate, it’s not like believing it would harm me. It didn’t harm St. Seraphim… So it’s not dangerous, and if I just take it in stride and move on it will bring me more swiftly to my goal—which is more of the direct experience.
I know by experience that Jesus Christ is a very powerful spirit—I know by experience that he is probably the most powerful spirit in the universe. I know by experience he is not a mere human being. He is something beyond that. I see others around the world having the same experience and the same encounter, and their reports echo what I sense. But I can’t know by experience that Christ is the Son of God, or know by experience what the Trinity is.
I see the Church saying that Christ is the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made…And I think, OK! You know better than I do! I don’t even understand completely what some of those words mean. But I can wholeheartedly trust what the Church teaches, because it is the summary of the community of experience, and it shows the vast company of the saints as the results. The Church’s teaching isn’t an official statement, but the cumulative understanding of all the people who have loved and experienced Jesus through time. All of us is smarter than any of us. My belief in what the Church teaches is on the order of trust, rather than working-it-out-logically-and-concluding-it-is-sound.
Something about myself that kind of puzzles me, though, is that I have real antagonism toward that kind of rationality. I feel like trying to figure it out logically, and deciding whether this or that theological theory is right, is soooooo stupid. I have no respect for it. I feel like it’s delusional, actually. It’s just a children’s game, that they play with long faces and think it amounts to something. And still the universe rolls on and takes no notice.
If it were possible to think our way to theological truth, then all the smart people in the world would end up agreeing. If that kind of truth were available to our minds, then every sincere person who followed it all the way to the end would come to the same realization. But our minds are so much weaker and sillier than we realize.
If it were possible to deduce the essentials of Christianity by reading the Bible by yourself in an attic, then all the sincere people who read the Bible would agree. All of us is smarter than… You need to cling to the community of those who, like you, have had authentic experience of the Lord, not just now but through time and across cultures. You have to follow the thread of what Christians have believed consistently for the longest amount of time, what has been believed by the most people everywhere for the longest time (the Vincentian Canon), and I mean starting right from the Holy Land 2000 years ago. Who could understand the Bible better than those who wrote it? Accept nothing that contradicts the continuous faith that began there and rolls on through the world. What else could be safe? Being smart is such an illusion; we’re trying to draw the universe with a box of 16 crayons. Our brains just can’t do it.
And the practical problem is that there is no edifying failure, when it comes to theologizing; theories just stretch on and on like a rickety tinkertoy, reaching into space, never making contact with reality. And yet people think they’ve done something substantial and reliable. If it were possible to do something reliable that way, then everyone who put their hand to it would finally come to the same conclusion.
I think intellectualizing annoys me because it is the enemy of experience; you cannot experience the presence of God and analyze it at the same time. You can’t analyze anything and experience it simultaneously. So any time spent deliberately theologizing is saying to God, “Bye! I don’t need to be in touch with you for awhile!” And of course we need to be always in touch, always to pray, to pray constantly; the only real wisdom comes from that inner connection. And people who do have that connection—there is a huge overlap where they agree. Where they fall out of agreement is when they try to go a-theorizing, out a ways from the circle, and construct those tinkertoy assertions, and then get huffy and dramatic about them.
I think it’s destructive, too, because it is such a sticky flypaper for pride. People can be just as addicted to cleverness, and verbally humiliating opponents, as to alcohol. It’s an intense and thrilling game, intellectualizing. It presents many opportunities to mock and wound other people. Positive results? Almost nothing accurate, or useful. It’s poisonous.
Sometimes that theoretical, theological work has to be done, because diseased ideas have crept in and people are confused and troubled. Praise God for the Holy Spirit who leads and inspires theologians in such times, in the great Ecumenical Councils and other settings. But the fact that it has to be done at all is a sign something was going wrong.
Since I am founded so insistently on direct experience of God, it’s necessary to say that for safety’s sake you’ve got to stay within a structure of accountability—another aspect of community. Because there is a real devil, and he really does fake things and confuse us in subtle ways. It is absolutely necessary to be in a healthy community and under the prayer-covering and guidance of someone wiser about such things. History is littered with those who followed false experiences of God.
I could probably keep going. I don’t really know why I get so exercised about philosophizing and theologizing. I just feel like it’s a delusional and ultimately poisonous thing.
2. I appreciate the gentleness of responses to the hasty email I sent Rod yesterday morning, which was more intemperate and ranty than measured and precise. Given more time I would have acknowledged many of the objections raised here. (And if you want to continue a conversation, you can email me at email@example.com.)
It began with an attempt to explain why I’m not troubled by doubts, either about my faith or my Church. I hear people talk about doubt all the time, and the exchange on this blog was poignant. But for me doubts come in, and go out the other window. I can see that I’m very different from most people in this, and was thinking out loud, trying to express it; maybe it would help somebody.
After that I got into something else, a life-long irritation I’ve had toward abstractionism. I really don’t know why I feel this way, but I always have, even when I wasn’t a Christian. I was blurting some of that out, but not very coherently; I don’t yet understand why I feel this way. This was an “engage the mind before putting the mouth in gear” situation.
About the Church, I should say that it is not so much a machine (a harsh word choice) as a hospital. It is designed to do something, to make people well. We are not just guilty of sin, we are sick with sin. The Church is where the wisdom and science of healing is found.
The more we’re healed, the more we are filled with Christ. The more we’re filled with Christ, the more love we have for others. The more that love overflows, the more they sense the love of Christ calling them too.
But the Church as an earthly institution is certainly prey to every kind of failing that afflicts mankind. Power, especially, brings temptation. The earthly leadership of the Church is like the administration of that hospital; you hope they are well-chosen and honest, but even a completely corrupt administration could not damage medical science itself.
The Church is many things besides a hospital, it’s many-faceted. It is the Bride of Christ. But we can’t claim to know what that means; St. Paul likened that relationship to marital sex, surprisingly enough, and called it “a great mystery.”
It’s things like that, or what it means to speak of the Father and the Son, that I think we are best off accepting in a simple way, in a childlike way. The further we go in trying to pin exactly what it means, the more likely we are to be wandering, unknowing, in trackless mental wastes.
Funny, but I seem to be making both an apophatic and a kataphatic point at the same time. Kataphatic: Accept it like a child, as simply as you can. Apophatic: Beware of theorizing, because nothing in our worldly experience, of fathers and sons, say, corresponds accurately and sufficiently to the Father and the Son.
(BTW I am not “simple,” but the opposite of “simple” is not “intellectual” but “complicated, crooked, devious, crafty” etc. Which is why I need forgiveness, and healing.)
What we think we know, and the pleasure of expanding such knowledge, can get in the way of deeper comprehension. The only way to know God is directly, but it’s tempting to go tinkering in our mental workshops instead. Because there’s something about just gazing at him and drinking in that presence that we actually don’t look forward to, even after we’ve experienced its sweetness. When you’re there, you never want to leave; when you’ve left, you kinda don’t want to go back. It’s just so different from the way our busy minds usually function, and enjoy functioning. I forget which Church Father said that the things of this world overwhelm us with desire, but we are quickly filled and sated. The things of God do not attract at first, but when experienced are so compelling and intoxicating that they continuously draw us; we are never satisfied.
This science of healing is practical and visibly effective, and not merely “spiritual.” I think this is one reason Eastern Christianity (Orthodoxy) has not been through the theological upheaval and division of Western Christianity. Because it’s expected that the faith has practical application; it’s not simply a contest of ideas. There’s an expectation that faith will do something, and it does it. It’s a regimen of healing, and it works; it doesn’t disappoint, doesn’t frustrate, doesn’t bore. It’s challenging—we’re fasting (keeping a vegan diet) more than half the days of the year. Services are long and, traditionally, we worship standing. But you can actually see the results. That makes a big difference. (The story of St. Seraphim of Sarov and Motovilov is a common example: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/47867.htm .)
This science works for anyone, regardless of whether you consider yourself a rational or emotional person. It has nothing to do with your cogitating mind or your emotions, but your perception. Your awareness. A prophet who hears the voice of God does so not by thinking or emoting but by listening. This science, preserved and transmitted by the Church, can teach anyone how to get better at such listening. It teaches us how to discipline the mind, quiet the tumult of desires and fears that keep us running all our lives. It’s a gradual process, but steady and continuous.
(This aware and receptive mind, rather than the cogitating and discursive mind, is what the New Testament Greek word “nous” refers to, and quite alters how we understand Scriptures like “He opened their nous to understand the Scriptures” [Luke 24:45], “We have the nous of Christ” [1 Corinthians 2:16], “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous” [Romans 12:2].)
This is what the Orthodox Church means by “salvation:” restored union with God, becoming radiant with his life like a lump of coal (or a Burning Bush) touched by his fire.
I don’t think we know more about theology now than the first Christians did, unlike other sciences. Well, what does theology mean—ideas about God, or this science of prayer, healing, union with God? Orthodox Christians believe that the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, already in the first century mastered this science of prayer. After that, centuries of practice, across multiple cultures, further defined it. That accumulated knowledge provides much guidance, and accountability keeps us safe.
Theology in the more abstract sense has to meet the practical test of whether it’s compatible with increasing holiness. I don’t think we can make the case that our own generation is the most theologically accurate generation that ever lived. If we were, we would all be walking on water. The test of theology is holiness, and we’re just not that much noticeably holier than the martyrs of the early centuries, to pick an example.
The question of how people of other religions fit in is a frequent one. I think where we get confused is in imaging “other religions” as a series of clouds: a Muslim cloud, a Buddhist cloud, etc. In reality, there are only people—people who believe and follow Islam, Buddhism, and so forth. Every one an individual person, created and known by God. Every one in a direct personal relationship with God already, whether they know it or not; a connection deeper than their own knowledge of themselves, a connection of a sort possible only to their Creator. Every one of them beloved and of eternal value.
When they pray to God, their prayers are heard by Jesus, because he (the Trinity) is the only God there is. And he loves them. “He wills all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4).
This means coming to Christ, who is “the truth.” Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
To what extent that relationship advances in any individual’s lifetime is not something God has asked me to have an opinion about. I can’t even judge my own progress (1 Corinthians 4:3), much less someone else’s. He assigned me to be a witness (Acts 1:8), not a judge (Matthew 7:1). But he did call us to be witnesses, and to present Christ “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). If he has a plan to save people apart from their accepting Christ as Lord, he hasn’t told us about it. Apparently he’s told us all a servant needs to know.
I come back to—it’s not about ideas, but about a relationship. I met a Christian evangelical missionary to Muslims once and said I thought it would be very hard to present the Christian faith in that context. She said that’s not how conversions happen anyway; 75% of the time, when a Muslim becomes a Christian, it is the result of a dream or a vision. God leaps right over a wall (Psalm 18:29).
A couple of people mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas. Oddly enough, he had an experience at the end of his life that caused him to reevaluate his life’s work. At a liturgy on December 6, 1273, he had an experience of Christ—an overwhelming experience, it seems, but he never described it to anyone.
After that, he stopped writing. His assistant begged him to, but he refused. He said, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” He died three months later.
Finally, I don’t know what to say about, or to, those who long to experience God’s presence, but never have. I don’t know why it’s easier for some than others. In my case, I was a recent college grad, comfortably contemptuous of Christianity and dabbling in Hinduism, when the undeniable presence of Jesus knocked me flat.
Why me and not someone else? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem fair. I expect it helps, as Jesus said, to ask, seek, and knock—but I wasn’t doing any of those things. I thought Christianity was embarrassing, not lofty and exotic like other religions. Well, he just knocked me flat.
I have so much admiration for those who keep on trying, though their bowl remains empty. I can’t imagine what that is like—what fortitude, what faithfulness, that entails. It’s suffering, isn’t it? Desiring this contact with God, and not receiving it, is suffering.
All I can think is that you must already be experiencing some hint of it, in some way you don’t immediately identify. Think about what people are like who don’t care about God; there are plenty of people like that. If this question haunts you, and you keep returning to the night sky that seems so empty—I believe you are already sensing something, or you wouldn’t keep seeking it. You wouldn’t desire it, if you hadn’t caught a whiff of that intoxicating fragrance. Something is already there. I pray it will get stronger.
Maybe God knows I wouldn’t keep following him if he didn’t keep sprinkling M & Ms on the path. Maybe he knows you have a stronger, deeper heart than mine. My prayer for you is that God will make clearer to you that “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), provide some manna in your wilderness, and reward your noble, persevering heart.
Funny, when I began writing (very suddenly, in 1989), it was all about social issues. I thought the place to be was the public square, crafting language that could call people to justice. It seemed so urgent and important, and now I see how strangely ineffective most of that was. I begin to think it’s really all about bearing witness—that the only really useful thing I can do (getting back to my preference for practicality) is to tell what happened to me.
Awhile back I had an experience that confirmed my suspicion of theologizing-for-its-own-sake in a way that was almost comical. I was participating in an ecumenical academic conference. When invited to such things I usually tell the host that I’m not an academic and can recommend someone better, but often they still want me.
So I was participating in a panel, when another member, a very old Catholic scholar, said, “What you said in your book, it’s not true.” I wondered what I’d said in which book; from his comments, it was apparently something about the Great Schism and the filioque…but as he went along he was covering a lot of things I actually agreed with, and things I’d never written about, and not coming to any particular point. (He even said something about the filioque that was harsher than anything I’d *ever* written, referring to the “unilateral ecclesiastical arrogance that Rome could introduce a word into a conciliar text”.)
I was racking my brain to figure out which book he was talking about, and what I might have said there, as the most likely books were over ten years old. I kept jotting notes on what he was saying, hoping to piece it together later. I took what he said seriously. I never want to give offense unintentionally. If I’m going to have to give offense, I want it to be well thought through.
He ended by fixing me with a bold stare and pronouncing, “History is not confessional propaganda masquerading as history.” And the room burst into applause. I looked up, shocked. A portion of the audience composed of Catholic seminarians were laughing and clapping with delight.
I talked to the event host later, and he explained that they like to see this aged professor really zing somebody; they like to egg him on. But, I said, what he’d said didn’t actually make sense. It didn’t correspond to anything I’d written, and it didn’t even hang together as a series of thoughts. Over the phone I heard a shrug.
So that’s why I say it confirmed my lack of enthusiasm for pure-theory theology. Those audience members weren’t applauding the old professor’s intellectual insight or rigor. They were rewarding the sizzle of confrontation. It’s the fight that’s thrilling, not the logical purity. This is what happens when theology gets too far disconnected from prayer, and becomes a sport in its own right. People don’t even realize how spiritually unhealthy it is.
Never seen a Pixar movie before? Monsters, Inc. (2001) is a good place to start. It’s a buddy movie, about Sully and his best friend, Mike. Sully, voiced by John Goodman, is a gentle giant, and Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, is a short, round guy with overflowing self-confidence. It hardly matters that Sully is eight feet tall and has blue and purple fur, and Mike is basically an eyeball on legs.
This version of the Akathist Hymn is my translation, from my book “Mary as the Eastern Christians Knew Her.” (Note: this is a paperback version of a book published a few years ago in hardback as “The Lost Gospel of Mary.” We decided to change the title, since the “Lost Gospel” meme has passed.)
The main thing I wanted to do was to provide footnotes for all the verses from Scripture and other references St. Romanos makes, since just singing it in church it goes by so quickly. It is a beautiful hymn, very profound, and makes a good text for study and prayer.
St. Romanos, author of the Akathist Hymn, was born in Beirut in 475 AD.
[Dec. 17, 2012] Surprisingly enough, we received a Christmas card from the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, MD. I’m impressed; what a kind and peace-making gesture.
Here are the images that go with my Ancient Faith Radio podcast, a recording of a speech about the history of icons.
1. The baptistry from the church at Dura Europas, Syria, from about 245 AD.