Κυριακή, 22 Μαΐου 2016

Finding the True God - The God of the Christians smashes idols!...

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Glory 2 God for all things
The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was among the first modern thinkers to attack the classical notion of God. He suggested that God was simply the outward projection of our inward human nature. His thought gave rise to many varied theories. Freud thought God was nothing more than a projection of the Super-Ego, a sort of cosmic version of our parents. Durkheim suggested that God was simply a projection of society’s moral demands. Marx had yet another explanation of why people imagine God to exist, as did Nietzsche These seminal thinkers of modernity have been dubbed the “Masters of Suspicion.” And, strangely, they were all correct, at least in a certain sense.
Human beings have a tendency to invent idols. Whether grounded in our fear and need to control, or some other deep inner force, we simply have a way of creating false images of God. These philosophers, despite whatever perversities may have driven their thought, were fairly accurate in analyzing human inventions that are named “God.” Any decent confessor worth his salt could have told them as much (had they asked).
In my pastoral experience, Christians are often not suspicious enough. We frequently put great store in our own ideas and impressions of God. As often as not, the larger problems surrounding our primary relationship with God are our unexamined attempts to merge Him with the God of our own invention.
In order to know God, you first have to admit that you don’t know Him.
Belief in God is not the same thing as the acceptance of a set of propositions. Even if the propositions are “supported by the Scriptures,” that entire interpretive exercise is as subject to the imagination and idolatry as pure fantasy. Most Christians whom I know who have a very distorted view of God have Scripture to support their notions.
Christ makes a very key statement on the knowledge of God:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Mat 11:27)
This is an essential point in Christian teaching. No one knows God except as He is made known through Jesus Christ. You cannot “go behind” Christ to speak about knowing God. We do not first know God, and then draw conclusions about Jesus. But Christians regularly “go behind” Christ to imagine God. They consider any number of attributes from “He’s mad at me,” to “I can never please Him.” Most of what people “think” about God is pure illusion.

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There has come to be a mass expectation of “God-awareness” in modern culture. This has some likely roots in the great revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries that created most of modern Protestantism. It is the place where the language of “having a relationship with God” comes from (readers, please note that the word “relationship” occurs nowhere in the Scriptures). I was taught as a child that if I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and asked Jesus to “come into my heart” He would do so. And further, I would know that He had. I have had perhaps thousands of conversations with people who claim, on a similar basis, an awareness of God. People will say, “I believe God is leading me to….” At least one Presidential candidate this year described this as the process he would use in making major national decisions.

This is a strange subjectivity created within modern Pietism and provokes questions from within the classical tradition. How you “feel” about God at any given time, or how you think He feels about you, are, on the whole, information about the inside of your head, not about God. One of the benefits of regular confession is having someone there to help think through these thoughts and feelings. The tremendous weight that many give to their thoughts and feelings about God is a testimony to the psychological narcissism that pervades our culture. We think that what is in our heads is actually real.
When, for example, we read that St. Silouan experienced the absence of God (described in various ways), this is by no means the same thing that most are experiencing when we speak of not sensing God’s presence. First, the grace he knew prior to that dark night, is qualitatively different than our popular religious subjectivity. I have, tragically, seen excerpts from St. Silouan applied in general as a remedy to depression. This kind of confusion of our modern psychological sensibilities with what we read in the lives of the saints is part of our cultural delusion. It creates false expectations for the inner life.

People come to faith in Christ in a myriad of ways. The heart is simply too unique to declare one path to believing. But the central tenet of the Christian faith is the claim that Christ is truly God and truly man and that He rose from the dead, fulfilling the Scriptures. Regardless of how we might come to accept that, it remains the starting point for Christian believing.
We internalize many images and feelings in our lives. The observations of the Masters of Suspicion were correct in parts of their analysis. It is very difficult not to import experiences of parents and other authorities, or simply our experience of the world, into what we think about God or expect from Him.
I grew up with a father who struggled with alcohol during my most formative years. I loved him dearly and felt that it was returned. But my experience of him was frequently frightening and often disappointing. And there is no doubt in my mind that I carried a certain orientation to life, including to God, as a wound from that early experience. At one point in my adult life, I had to work hard to untangle God from my earthly father. That tale is a tangled mess of contradictions and painful work. And it never entirely disappears. The habits of the heart are generally formed quite early in our lives.
But a sort of “agnostic discipline” has been essential. It primarily consists in rebuking the false images and assumptions that arise in my mind as I try to pray, to think, and to simply go through the day. What I set in place is the Father as shown to me in Jesus Christ.


There is a “Biblical God” espoused by some. In this, they do not interpret the Scriptures through Christ, but seek to know God through the larger Scriptures. Thus, for them, the meekness, and the radical kindness of Christ is to be balanced against the other images of God. The cleansing of the Temple thus becomes the doorway for importing the God who hates Esau, who demands the utter destruction of the Amalekites, and (they imagine), demands a payment for our wrong-doing.
The statement of Jesus, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” is thus altered to, “Study the Bible and you’ll come to know God.”
Christianity is, rightly, Christocentric. Jesus is the revelation of God. We do not know God apart from Him, including by reading the Scriptures. He promises to make Himself known. He even says that He and the Father will “come and sup” with us, a wonderfully intimate image. However, we too easily read this into a promise to be fulfilled in our subjectivity.
The sacramental life and public worship are the two most prominent venues for knowing God within the Tradition. God is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, but our subjectivity can be all over the map. Over time, I have slowly discovered that there is a knowledge of God that differs greatly from my inner thoughts. This is very difficult to put into words, since it is “extra-subjective” (outside of subjective experience). It is much closer to knowing than thinking, and somehow independent of mood.

Why Does God Hide?

monks in tree

God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.
This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?
In my previous article, I wrote:
Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.
God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.
This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.
The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.
Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life.

Icon from here

Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner, than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.
But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.
Christ uses the imagery of seeking (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…
But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.
Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought:
You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.
The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other money in the world.
When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job, or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me. The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe). And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted started coming true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.
But the point that was at hand was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.

st cuthbert prays 

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach. He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.
Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.

All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.
I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. It might become obnoxious. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.
There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.

All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent all of this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”
The classical path described in Scripture and the Tradition is rooted in worship, the sacraments, regular prayer, and in the keeping of the commandments. There is, over time, a growth and formation in the knowledge of God. Unlearning the habits of modern culture is difficult, to say the least. The knowledge of God is a genuine formation in character, rooted in the sacraments and a true transformation in the Divine life. It is not, however, simply one more set of thoughts and impressions within our modern subjectivity.
At a certain point in my adult journey, I despaired of any confidence in the subjective world of contemporary Christianity. My heart yearned for something truly substantial. I’ve learned that such a yearning can be fulfilled but over a long time. The Church bears the knowledge of God within the fullness of its life. It has been through living in the bosom of the Church that this same knowledge has slowly become known. It is where we receive the sacraments and where we pray. It is the place of our repentance. It’s is Christ’s primary gift to us – that we might know Him.

See also

Deification - The Uncreated Light
"Partakers of Divine Nature" - About Deification & Uncreated Light in Orthodox Church
Grace and “the Inverted Pyramid” 
Theosis, St. Silouan and Elder Sophrony 
Why I'm not an atheist 
The Psychology of Atheism
God the Holy Trinity: 'The Lover of Mankind'

Orthodoxy's Worship: The Sanctification of the Entire World
The holy anarchists
A Deer Lost in Paradise  

Lover of Truth: St John, The Wonderworker of San Francisco

The 'Death' of Anita Phillips

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