Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Salvation, East and West

In the last post about my faith journey, I described the theological controversy around the meaning of salvation by faith alone that I encountered while in college. Although I came to a few conclusions on the subject, I had not resolved it satisfactorily when I encountered the Eastern Orthodox church over 15 years later. The Orthodox ended up helping me see the question from a different perspective.

What I found was that Eastern Christianity was not so focused on sin and forgiveness as much as a new kind of life and the transformation of our natures. Salvation is a process called theosis, which is being changed from our fallen human condition into sons of God, brothers and sisters of our Lord, transformed into his image, and partakers of the divine nature. We enter into this new life by faith, but our initial response of faith is just the beginning of this life of transformation. We receive the Holy Spirit, who works in our spirits, and we commune with God through prayer. However, we are not just spiritual beings; we are also physical. Therefore God makes use of physical means such as the sacraments to transform us. Our changed nature is reflected in the way we live our lives.

In short, the life of discipleship is not optional for a Christian, but the very path of transformation that saves us from a life of self-destruction, and brings us into eternal life. Heaven is not so much a reward for believing the right thing, but the fulfillment and completion of a supernatural life that begins in this life. What I found in Eastern Orthodoxy was that faith, good works, the work of the Holy Spirit, and salvation, were all intertwined in a dynamic relationship with God.

I read a booklet by Bp. Kallistos Ware where he responded to the Evangelical question, "are you saved?" He said that he was saved by Jesus on the cross; he is being saved now as he grows in his relationship with Christ; and his hope is to experience the completion of salvation in heaven. Notice that heaven is his hope, not his guarantee. He knows that he freely entered into this relationship with Christ, and he could freely leave it, even as a bishop. Apostasy and turning to a life of sin is always a possibility for any Christian in this life, so we must be vigilant so that we don't drift away. Don't get me wrong, God does not easily let go of us; he wants our salvation more than we do. However, he does respect our free will, and it is possible for a Christian to get so caught up in the world and sin that he prefers it to God, and is in danger of destruction.

That's my quick sketch of the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation as I understand it. What surprised me years later was that this was very similar to the Catholic view. Indeed, the worldwide Catholic Church includes Eastern Catholic churches whose theology of salvation is no different than the Eastern Orthodox. When you get to Western Catholic theology, there is more of an emphasis on sin, punishment, and forgiveness. Western categories are more distinct, and Western theologians try to nail down answers to questions that Eastern theologians prefer to leave unanswered. Western theologians use the term "sanctifying grace" to talk about the presence of God that accomplishes theosis. They use the term "mortal sin" to describe the kind of act that completely kills our relationship with God, and "venial sin" to describe an act that damages but does not kill the life of God within us. Eastern Christians recognize both kinds of effects of sin, but they are reluctant to categorize things in that way.

Nevertheless, Catholic theology recognizes that we need the grace of God to forgive our sins and to lift us up into the life of God. We respond to God's work in us by faith, and so cooperate with him. In other words, God will not change us if we don't want him too. We, in ourselves, can add nothing to what God does, but we can say "yes" to the offer of Christ to live his life through us. As in the Eastern view, there are physical as well as spiritual means through which God works in us. Although there are lots of activities involved in the Catholic walk of faith, known as works of charity, they are all actually works of Christ, because it is Christ who does them through us.

Well, these are huge topics, which I've barely touched on. I hope, however, it clarifies things a little bit. Please feel free to ask specific questions, and I'll see if I can find some answers.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ and the "Dying Gods"

Happy Easter, everyone!

I am using a new search engine, duckduckgo.com. I typed in "C. S. Lewis dying god" and this popped up in the "red box" instant results at the top.

Christian mythology: Comparative mythology: Christ and the "Dying Gods"
The more recent writer C. S. Lewis regarded the pagan "dying gods" as premonitions in the human mind of the Christ story that was to come. Pope Benedict XVI expressed a similar opinion in his 2006 homily for Corpus Christi: "The Lord mentioned [wheat's] deepest mystery on Palm Sunday, when some Greeks asked to see him. In his answer to this question is the phrase: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit' (Jn 12: 24). [...] Mediterranean culture, in the centuries before Christ, had a profound intuition of this mystery. Based on the experience of this death and rising they created myths of divinity which, dying and rising, gave new life. To them, the cycle of nature seemed like a divine promise in the midst of the darkness of suffering and death that we are faced with. In these myths, the soul of the human person, in a certain way, reached out toward that God made man, who, humiliated unto death on a cross, in this way opened the door of life to all of us." There have been some modern attempts to discredit the notion of a general "dying god" category of which Christ is a member. More at Wikipedia
I did the search because I remembered how C. S. Lewis, when he was an atheist, believed that Christianity was just another "dying god" myth. However, he came to wonder why there were so many dying god myths in human cultures, and came to believe that they were all premonitions of an actual event that was so cosmic in its scope, reaching across space and time, that it made a deep impression in the human psyche, even before it played out in human history.

The first link brought me this quote:
“In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God really appears—as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time. . . . The old myth of the Dying God . . . comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens— at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ [in other religions] . . . : they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.”
By the way, I think DuckDuckGo (DDG) is the first serious alternative to Google. One of their biggest selling points is that they don't track you like Google does. They also make a bigger effort to keep out spam, which I like. I also like their nice user interface. Give it a try!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Lord descends into hell

From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Make a Friar

A few weeks ago, I saw a young man speak at my parish, Patrick Gothman, who is in the process of joining the Little Brothers of the Lamb, a missionary branch of the Dominican order based in France, and operating in several countries around the world. This branch not only sees St. Dominic as their spiritual father, as do all Dominicans, but they also look to St. Francis of Assisi as a spiritual father. I find this remarkable because Dominic and Francis lived at the same time and started similar reform movements, but the orders which resulted from their work have often been at odds with each other. The Little Brothers and Sisters of the Lamb appear to take the best of both movements, and have the potential to be an effective reform movement in the Church. They have fully the adopted the mendicant practice that characterized these movements in the beginning by trusting God to provide for them day by day through the gifts of others.

Patrick has set up a website about his vocation not only to inform, but also to raise some money he needs to pay off student loans before he enters religious life. If you would like to learn more about Patrick, the Community of the Lamb, and possibly help him out, check out www.makeafriar.com.