Theology and Spirituality

Moving on…

I want to talk about theology and spirituality as a single subject, for the same reason that Martin Luther correctly said “It is the heart that makes a theologian”.

I am not going to talk about particular theological topics: icons, Mary the mother of God, bishops or monasticism (if it is really a burning issue for you, ask it during the questions, or talk with me afterwards); but I want to talk about how we approach theology.  Theology during first several centuries didn’t  have different answers to Reformation questions, but they asked different questions; and we who are Orthodox still do.  That is what makes East – West/Latin and Greek dialogues not just so difficult, but also so fascinating and enriching.

There are two points I want you to take away from this:

  • Orthodox have a different way of doing theology
  • Orthodox work out of different primary theological paradigms

First: How do we “do” theology?  For Orthodox, theology is not a discipline of philosophy by which we reason our way to a knowledge of God; but theology is an attempt to explain experience.

Whether you agree, or disagree with them; we all recognize Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Anslem as major theologians who have defined the categories in which the West thinks about theology; but they do it differently than the Church had done previously, or as the Church continues to do it in the East.  All theologians make speculations, but Augustine begins to trust his speculations to draw novel conclusions: If infants are born without volitional sinning, then why do they die?  They must inherit the guilt of their parents!  Without the check of other theologians (due to language and geography), these speculations took a life of their own and went in a new direction, over time becoming the foundation for dogmatic theology (such as “Original Sin” – which many of you (but not all of us) consider a foundational dogma).

Another example: Gregory of Nyssa (in the 4th century), struggled with the idea of “Christ ransoming us”, and while leaning toward the traditional ‘Christus Victor’ (that we had enslaved ourselves to the Devil and are liberated by Christ), he  rejects that the ransom was either a payment to the Devil or to God the Father; He won’t speculate further, for as he says: beyond this, he does not know the mind of God.  On the other hand, Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) tries to work out the transaction of how God paid God – the foundation of a ‘satisfaction’ theology which let to ‘penal substitution’. – Christ’s death paid for our sin by satisfying the just wrath of God.  I need to be very careful here, as this is no longer my theology; but it is hard not to see the Middle Ages or Johnathan Edward and his sermon  “Sinner in the hands of an angry God” as being a problem in need of a cosmic anger management seminar.  And how much is modern Western atheism a reaction against this ‘angry god’?

Because of this difference, the East can appear less theologically certain on some (but not all) points of theology, and more comfortable with mystery.  We are suspicious of taking reason too far.

My second point: Paradigms are stories, useful ways of talking about things.  They are not right or wrong, but more or less useful.  The East and West share most of these stories, but we tell them differently, with quite a different emphasis.

During one of my first encounters with Fr. Steven Kostoff, I remember asking him “do you know you are saved?”  I assumed this was a simple basic question, with a binary “yes” or “no” answer.  His reply was: “That is too selfish of a question, I don’t ask myself that”.  St Silouia (a monk on Mt Athos) was once asked how to be saved, and he replied  “Keep your mind in hell, but do not despair”.  Not only are these answers unexpected, they seem not to make sense.  It is not that the East adds up the sum and gets a different number.  But more the difference between geometry and topology – it is a different way of doing math.

Historically, since Augustine in the 4th century, the Latin West has primarily worked out of a Legal/Forensic frame of mind.  Questions are about guilt and innocence, being just or unjust, “has Jesus paid the penalty of our sins?”​.  The Greek Eastern Church has been more organic; and are more comfortable talking in terms of life and death, light and dark; but are quite willing to mix metaphors. For example, as I was preparing last September, I heard this Vesperal hymn for the feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

“The serpent’s venom is washed away by the blood of God, and the curse of just condemnation is undone when the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment.
For it was fitting that the Tree should be healed by a Tree, and that by the Passion of the passionless God what was wrought on the Tree should destroy the passions of man, who was condemned.”

While hymnody freely crosses paradigms, in our discussions we need to carefully keep them separated or even the right words will not be understood correctly in the wrong context.  It is, for example, like asking your attorney for a cease and desist order when you have a headache.  Or, asking your doctor for medication to cure a traffic ticket.

Understanding different paradigms is fortunately becoming easier in the West, as the paradigms are broadening.  The modern evangelical circles are more diverse than even 50 years ago, which opens the door for better understanding:

How many of you have read NT Wright?  Whether you agree with him, or tend toward the views of John Piper; NT Wright is changing the game by asking new questions: “How does Jesus make sense from a 1st Century Jewish perspective”, instead of a 16th century Reformation context.

Where am I going with this?  I want to take it to our core thinking about salvation.

When I went to Covenant Seminary, I was taught in the Reformed tradition that Salvation was made up of three parts: Justification, Sanctification & Glorification.  I, like many evangelicals, found myself focused almost exclusively on justification, and thinking of it as a legal transaction, a contract I accept at a particular moment in time.

Orthodox rarely understand salvation as having separate parts (though it would be helpful at times if they did).  Occasionally someone will say: “I have been saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved”.  For us, salvation is one big existential experience.  We don’t care when I first believed, we ask “do I believe now?”, what is the quality of my relationship?  We focus almost exclusively on what you would call sanctification.

If you miss the context/paradigm shift, you will be in for very strange conversations about fasting and monastic asceticism.  If you hear it wrong, you will be convinced we believe in Pelagian works righteousness (which I will emphatically deny!).

I mentioned NT Wright because I believe that if you know his perspective on virtue (his book “After You Believe”) you will know 80% of Orthodoxy.  His paradigms of kingdom, covenant and virtue will take you a long way – and with the advantage of a Western vocabulary.  NT Wright understands the sharp distinction between entering into a covenant relationship with God (justification), and the life we take on as Covenant people (sanctification).  He knows what it means to struggle with vices and sin, and acquiring the virtue of love.  He, and Orthodox, are in agreement that our goal in this life is a ‘realized eschatology’ of living as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to know God and learn to be with Him.  But what does that mean in practice?

It is here that NT Wright ends, while the Orthodox continue.  Wright speculates on the meaning II Peter 1:4 – “that you might be partakers of the divine nature…” and interestingly references Motovilov’s encounter with the Russian Saint, Saraphim of Sarov, when the two were caught up into what the Orthodox call the “uncreated light of God”.

For Orthodox, knowing God is not just a theoretical goal or an emotional feeling, but a medical science.  St  John of the Ladder’s classic work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent reads like a medical textbook, complete with technical terms like: theosis, nous and hesychism or “uncreated light”; and like a medical text on brain surgery, it is not a ‘do it yourself’ manual.

The goal of this traditional practice is called Theosis – but it may be more familiar to you as terms like: acquiring the nature of God, being united with God, being found in Christ.  Traditionally it has three steps:

  • (The first is) Practice – The negative side is the putting away sin; the positive side is the acquisition of virtue: learning to love as Christ loves.  This is the level where most of us will spend our whole lives struggling.
  • (The second is) Enlightenment – Is experiencing the uncreated light of God – This was the experience of Moses when he came down from the mountain, having to put a veil over his face to hide the radiance. Or, the experience of the apostles on the mount of Transfiguration, or the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus, or the experience of Motovilov with St. Seraphim.  It is rare, but not unusual.
  • (And finally) Illumination – This is the final state of knowing God, where someone has worn away the separation between earth and  the kingdom.  Such people frequently live in both realities at the same time.  This is Paul in II Cor 12:2. This is the context of many stories about the saints, and we call them saints because they knew God on this level.
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