Against The Normal

Within the Christianity of our time, the great spiritual conflict, unknown to almost all, is between a naturalistic/secular world of modernity and the sacramental world of classical Christianity. The first presumes that a literal take on the world is the most accurate. It tends to assume a closed system of cause and effect, ultimately explainable through science and manageable through technology. Modern Christians, quite innocently, accept this account of the world with the proviso that there is also a God who, on occasion, intervenes within this closed order. The naturalist unbeliever says, “Prove it.”

The sacramental world of classical Christianity speaks a wholly different language. It presumes that the world as we see it is an expression of a greater reality that is unseen. It presumes that everything is a continuing gift and a means of communion with the good God who created it. The meaning and purpose of things is found in that which is not seen, apart from which we can only reach false conclusions. The essential message of Christ, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is a proclamation of the primacy of this unseen world and its coming reign in the restoration of all things (apokatastasis, cf. Acts 3:21).

The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as “common sense” and “normal.” Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists.

The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of “something else” will haunt some modern Christian minds.

An assumption of the secular/naturalist worldview is that information itself is “objective” in character: it is equally accessible to everyone. The classical worldview assumes something quite different. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Christ says, “for they shall see God.” The Kingdom of God is not an inert object that yields itself to public examination. The knowledge of God and of all spiritual things requires a different mode of seeing and understanding. St. Paul says it this way: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1Co 2:14).

This understanding disturbs the sensibilities of many contemporary Christians. Some go so far as to suggest that it is “gnostic” (by this they mean that the very notion of spiritual knowledge that is less than democratic is suspect). Sola Scriptura is a modern concept that posits the Scriptures as subject to objective interpretation. The Scriptures thus belong to the world of public, democratic debate, whose meaning belongs within the marketplace of opinion. The Scriptures are “my Bible.”

The classical model is, in fact, the teaching found in the Scriptures. It utterly rejects the notion of spiritual knowledge belonging to the same category as the naturalistic/secular world. It clearly understands that the truth of things is perceived only through the heart (nous) and that an inward change is required. It is impossible to encounter the truth and remain unchanged.

The classical model, particularly as found within Orthodoxy, demands repentance and asceticism as a normative part of the spiritual life. These actions do not earn a reward, but are an inherent part of the cleansing of the heart and the possibility of perceiving the truth.

The rationalization (secular/rationalist) of the gospel has also given rise to modern “evangelism.” If no particular change is required in a human being in order to perceive the truth of the gospel, then rational argument and demonstration becomes the order of the day. Indeed, modern evangelism is largely indistinguishable from modern marketing. They were born from the same American social movements.

The classical model tends to be slower in its communication, for what is being transmitted is the fullness of the tradition and the transformation of each human life. Evangelism, in this context, has little to no relationship with marketing. The primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. In the early Church, the catechumenate generally lasted for as much as three years. The formation that took place was seen as an essential preparation for the Christian life. “Making a decision” was almost beside the point.

The struggle between classical/sacramental Christianity and modernity (including its various Christianities) is not a battle over information. The heart of the struggle is for sacramental Christianity to simply remain faithful to what it is. That struggle is significant, simply for the fact that it takes place within a dominant culture that is largely its antithesis.

A complicating factor in this struggle is the fact that the dominant culture (naturalistic/secular) has taken up traditional Christian vocabulary and changed its meaning. This creates a situation in which classical Christianity is in constant need of defining and understanding its own language in contradistinction to the prevailing cultural mind. The most simple terms, “faith, belief, Baptism, Communion, icon, forgiveness, sin, repentance,” are among those things that have to be consistently re-defined. Every conversation outside a certain circle requires this effort, and, even within that circle, things are not always easy.

Such an effort might seem exhausting. The only position of relaxation within the culture is the effortless agreement with what the prevailing permutations tell us on any given day. Human instinct tends towards the effortless life – and the secular mentality constantly reassures us that only the effortless life is normal. Indeed, “normal, ordinary, common,” and such terms, are all words invented by modernity as a self-description. Such concepts are utterly absent from the world of Scripture. Oddly, no one lived a “normal” life until relatively recently.

That which is “normal” is nothing of the sort. It is the purblind self-assurance that all is well when nothing is well.

God have mercy on us.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows a marginal pen-and-ink drawing from a letter by Olaf Stapledon, written to his fiance, dated October 3, 1918.

Divine Impassibility

It is fascinating how the ever-changing needs of the times often call us to tread again the same ground once covered by the Fathers. In their day the need was to show how the Scriptural account of God’s self-revelation was consistent with a more Hellenistic and philosophical view of the impassable divine nature.

Such a project was required in their day if they were to commend the Hebrew Scriptures which the Church received as divinely-inspired to the wider pagan audience which viewed the divine nature as eternal, impassable, transcendent, and unchanging.

The problem, of course, is that this philosophical view of divinity didn’t seem to line up with what people read about the Hebrew God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

People believed—correctly—that the divine nature was unchanging and unchangeable, that it was eternal and untroubled. Or, in the words of St. John of Damascus, that “He is invariable and unchangeable, and it would not be right to speak of contingency in connection with Him. [The divine nature is] uncreated, without beginning, immortal, infinite, eternal, immaterial, good, creative, just, enlightening, immutable, passionless, immeasurable, unlimited, undefined, unseen, unthinkable, wanting in nothing” (Exact Exposition, book 1, chapters 13, 14).

St. John Cassian said the same thing at an earlier time: The idea that God has physical limbs “cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 4.)

What both John of Damascus and John Cassian meant was not that the Scriptures were unreliable, but that they needed interpretation. For if one read the Hebrew Scriptures with a simple heart and insufficient subtlety, one might come away with an erroneous view of the Hebrew God.

One might imagine that Yahweh had a short fuse, that He sometimes lost His temper and needed calming down, that He did not know everything in advance, and sometimes needed to find things out by investigation and then might need to change His mind.

They might imagine that mere human beings could ruffle the divine feathers and get Yahweh worked up, and that He was subject to passions and emotions such as jealousy, uncontrolled rage, as well as bouts of happiness, and that His emotions could see-saw between extremes of happiness and sadness.

Even simpler readers might conclude that Yahweh had arms, fingers, eyes, ears, and a mouth because the Scriptures spoke of these things.

And some people even justified their own human rage by referring to the divine wrath mentioned in the Bible: “We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul [i.e. anger] in such a way as to endeavour to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture: as they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with our brethren who do wrong, since they say God Himself is said to rage and to be angry” (Institutes, book 8, chapter 2).

These overly-simple interpretations of Scripture flew in the face of what an intelligent pagan audience believed about the divine nature, and led a number of them to dismiss the Scriptures and the Church which received them as infantile and unworthy of true philosophy.

Of course, they said, the divine nature cannot be subject to such human passions. In fact, the Church had been saying the same thing about the pagan gods for some time, pouring scorn on the pagan myths and stories of Jupiter becoming angry and lustful.

But if it was true, as the Church always taught, that divine nature was essentially impassable and beyond the reach of change and passion, how could the Church’s Hebrew Scriptures have any credibility when they seemed to present a very changeable and passionate God? That was the problem that the Fathers had to grapple with as they presented the Christian Faith to a pagan world.

The Fathers’ solution is well known: they affirmed the philosophical view of God and interpreted the Scriptural account of God’s limbs (such as His mouth, eyes, and hands) metaphorically, as well as the Scriptural narratives about God’s wrath and seeming changeability.

St. John Cassian again: “By God’s mouth we should understand that His utterances are meant…by His eyes we can understand the boundless character of His sight with which He sees and looks through all things. By the expression ‘hands’ we understand His providence and work”.

But the Scriptural references to His divine wrath, though they should not be understood as declaring that God is subject to the passion of anger or that our sins cause Him to throw a fit, are not to be explained away.

Thus Cassian: “When we read of the anger or fury of the Lord, we should take it not according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion, so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in this world, and by reason of these terms and their meaning we should dread Him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds, and fear to do anything against His will.”

It is clear therefore that God still has wrath against sin, in that He will judge and avenge human wrong. Because of this divine vengeance we should “dread Him and fear to do anything against His will”.

The Fathers do not declare that God has no wrath, but only that His anger is just and not the result of fits of passion or pique. God’s anger is not like human anger, and is consistent with the divine impassibility. God is always good, and His beneficence never changes.

Whether or not we experience His kindness or His severity (see Romans 11:22) depends not upon His shifting moods, for He is not subject to shifting moods. Rather it depends entirely upon us and how we live.

St. Irenaeus said as much even earlier still: “As many as according to their own choice depart from good, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death and separation from light is darkness and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits He has in store…It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves are forever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them.” (Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 27).

God’s unchanging nature remains light; those who experience calamity and the divine wrath do so because of their own actions, not because God is no longer light or willing to enlighten.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: in the Fathers’ day, many took offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this was incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from the philosophical conviction that divine nature cannot be subject to emotions of any kind (including presumably nice emotions, such as happiness).

Today also many take offense at the Scriptural teaching about the wrath of God, saying that this is incompatible with the divine nature, the objection taking its force from our modern conviction that a loving God could not also have wrath.

We have seen that the Fathers’ teaching overthrows both objections. The Fathers agree that God’s nature is good and unchanging and unaffected by our sins. They also assert that the Scriptural teaching about God’s wrath is true, and that God will one day act as “the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in the world”.

The modern attempt to deny this latter truth by appeal to God’s good and unchanging nature cannot be sustained, and those who attempt to use the truth of divine impassibility to deny the truth of divine wrath are in error.

I suggest that those making this attempt are not motivated by the venerable philosophical appreciation for the doctrine of divine impassibility so much as by a very modern squeamishness about the doctrine of divine wrath.

The Fathers affirmed both divine wrath and divine impassibility, and we must tread in the way that they walked, following along the path they blazed for us.

Father Lawrence Farley serves as pastor of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.

The photo shows, “Moses on Mount Sinai,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted ca. 1895-1900.

Parable Of The Sower

Every Society has its dream of a better world. The classless society, the American dream; Utopia. Martin Luther King spoke about having a dream where black and white would no longer be segregated.

We hear our politicians when it’s coming up to election time talk about a fair and just society. The former British Prime Minister David Cameron talked about the ‘Big Society’. Not sure whatever happened to it.

The Jews of the first century were no different to us in wanting a better society and a better world. In the Old Testament, we can read from Judges on through to Kings and Chronicles all about the different rulers and kings Israel had and what sort of society they tried to create.

But as time went on it became clear that it would take an extraordinary intervention on God’s part to transform this present evil world into the sort of world where God’s people would really feel at home.

A decisive victory over the power of evil would have to be won, a victory no ordinary human being could ever achieve.

The people looked forward to the arrival of a supernatural deliverer, the one who would be anointed like the mighty heroes of the past; a new David; but greater even than David was. They waited for The Messiah.  

Don’t worry said the prophets; things look pretty bad for us Jews in this present wicked age.

But soon the Messiah will step out of the wings of history; and then at long last the kingdom of God will begin.

Can you imagine the shock that must have gone through the population of Galilee when Jesus, a young carpenter from Nazareth, started to wander around their towns and villages saying it had happened? ‘The kingdom of God has Come’. Its arrived. ‘Repent and believe the good news that I bring’. That’s what he said.

Many as we know were naturally very sceptical. They were not unfamiliar with lunatics who indulged their megalomaniac fantasies by pretending to be the Messiah.

But this man did not just make messianic claims; he cast out demons, he healed the sick, he raised the dead. He feeds 5000 plus people with a few fish and some loaves. He forgave people. And he taught. He wasn’t just all talk.

There was a charisma about him that had not been seen in Israel since the days of the greatest prophets 500 years before. There was even a rumour than he was Elijah or Jeremiah back from the dead.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that part of the world meant a great deal to the Galilean masses. The mere mention of the kingdom fired up their most fanatical zeal, and inspired their most passionate commitment.

All Jesus had to do when confronted by this vast multitude was to work a miracle or two and deliver a suitable firebrand speech and the whole of the Galilean countryside would have erupted enthusiastically for his Messiahship.

 He could easily have whipped up the crowds to march on Jerusalem. As some political leaders try to do even today.

But the extraordinary thing is, he didn’t. Instead he told them a story.

He had power greater than every nation combined together on planet earth at his disposal. But instead he tells the people a story. Can you imagine this great crowd coming to him from town after town, full of expectancy, hanging on to every word and ready to do as he commands? Then He sits down and tells them a Story.

Not a straight forward type of story; but a bizarre perplexing riddle of a story called a Parable. People are more open to stories; but not everybody; this is the strange conundrum.

Even his closest friends were utterly bewildered by this kind of approach. What on earth are you doing Jesus they asked him. What is this parable business all about?

Then he explains to them; ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that though seeing, they may Not see, through hearing they may Not understand. What does he mean? These are unpopular and controversial words.

What Jesus says here clearly seems to contradict the popular view of parables as moralizing stories told to aid the understanding of simple rural people.  

On the contrary; Jesus says he speaks in parables not to make it Easier for people to understand, but to make it Harder. Though seeing, they may Not see, though hearing, they may Not understand. Whatever you make of that, its quite clear that Jesus was not as impressed by these crowds, streaming out of Galilee to see him, as we might have been, if we had been there.

Jesus was not convinced that they were on his wavelength.

You see Jesus grew up with these people; he knew perfectly well what their ideas of the kingdom of God were; and that they were as different from his own ideas……. as chalk and cheese. As day to night. He had to take a different way with them. The last thing he wanted to do was to foster their mistaken notions by courting popularity with them. He was going to make things difficult for them.

He hints in fact that he feels rather as the prophet Isaiah did, when he was told to preach to a people whose hearts would be Hardened against his words.

Yet At other times Jesus speaks to the crowds and challenges them; he who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ Verse 8. So how do properly assess what Jesus is saying here.

This particular parable acts as a type of filter. You know what a filter does. It sifts.

Among the thousands who come to see and hear him for all the wrong reasons; he believes there are Some, just some who are genuinely Open to the truth.

A tiny minority maybe, amid that vast spiritually deaf multitude; but though few, they Did have ears to hear.

His parables were like a type of Filter that identified those True disciples.

They identified those who came to Jesus looking for just a political leader, a nationalist revolutionary, or a spell binding miracle worker, they went away disillusioned. Or I want you Jesus to give me the wow factor; take away all my troubles and tribulations, then I can get on with living for myself.

They found to their disappointment a teller of stories. But those who were drawn to him by some deeper magnetism stayed. In their hearts God’s spirit was working. They were being inwardly called to follow him.

Though they were perplexed at first, just like all the others, they were also intrigued, longing to understand what he was really getting at, sensing that somewhere buried in the obscurity of his parables lay the clue to that kingdom of God for which their hearts longed.

To you he says to them; ‘the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given’. But for some you have to take it a step further.

You will never find the kingdom, or Jesus for that matter if you do not allow your mind and heart to be opened. You need to move closer to him.

This is in fact, a fundamental characteristic of all Jesus’ ministry. You don’t get to grips with his message from the safe distance of a detached curiosity.

Unlike so many orators and some preachers of today; Jesus’ head was never turned by the flattery of the crowds.

He wasn’t fooled by the illusion of success that big numbers conjure up, he saw through all that hype. Instead he was perfectly content to Invest himself in just Twelve men and the handful of women Luke names for us. Provided they were real listeners, real learners, and real disciples, he was prepared to give the whole of himself to such a tiny band.

The parable of the Sower acts as a sifting process because

 behind this imagery of the sower and the seed is the solemn and serious truth that only some who hear his words are ultimately blessed by him and saved.

You know the way when people joined the Gold Rush in America back in the 1800’s. You see the prospectors sifting through a pile of dirt and stones from the river bed as they look for gold. And then they start to gradually wash all the debris away, until there is just one or two gold nuggets left.

Though there may be many whose initial response to the gospel looks promising, the path of being a follower of Jesus proves too demanding. They can’t hack it.

Different people view the meaning of parables differently. Some feel that parables are deliberately mysterious and elusive. But by drawing us into this particular story Jesus brings home some truths that we were not aware of which can strike home and leave us uncomfortable, perplexed and wanting more.

No matter whether we understand this parable, this story; at the first or second or third or fourth attempt; it can take years; Jesus still gets his message across. He wants us to hear it; to think carefully about it; and respond to it.

The photo shows the icon, “Christ the Sower of Seeds.”

The Demons

In 1872, Dostoevsky published his novel, The Demons [Бесы]. It demonstrated in a microcosm, the insanity that lay within the revolutionary movements of 19th century Russia. That insanity broke upon the world in 1917 and has remained present with us, in one form or another, ever since.

The madness that he describes takes place in a small town, away from the great capitals of Russia. It involves a relatively small cast of characters (at least for a Russian novel and revolution). There is love and intrigue. But mostly there is murder and mayhem. For the only revolutionary who succeeds is the one who fears nothing himself but creates and feeds on the fear of others.

It is interesting that great theories of economics and social justice do not form a part of this novel. Dostoevsky was no stranger to Russia’s radical movements and their political and economic theories: he spent a number of years in prison under the Tsar for having participated in one such group.

But he does not make the theory out to be of much importance. He rightly recognized that the spirit of revolution is not about a struggle for a glorious future. Revolution is about the destruction of the present and the will to power. Hitler’s rise to power and Lenin’s rise to power both belong to differing ideologies. What they share in common are lies and murder.

Dostoevsky’s revolutionary sees the world as teetering on chaos. The old order is a roadblock, an encumbrance that stands in the way of progress and the forces of renewal. Every convention, every custom and practice of tradition is the enemy. The revolutionary has to be prepared to sweep everything aside for the sake of his cause.

In Dostoevsky’s Russia, the Church was a primary conserving force. Its Orthodox practice was a shrine to Tradition and custom. Every aspect of life moved in obedience to the seasons of the Church. It is thus not surprising that the Church, God and the Christian view of the world were the primary targets of his drama.

But the title of Dostoevsky’s novel is even more to the point. Though he does not say so, the actors in the small “revolution” in the provinces, are only pawns. There is a larger game afoot, and that game is revealed in the title of the novel.

The work of the demons is not an ancient conspiracy, a carefully-planned work that ultimately results in the enthronement of the anti-Christ. Demons do not seem to be driven towards the construction of great empires – that activity is particularly human.

The work of the demons (both in the novel and in the real world) is the work of destruction. Existence is the gift of God. All that we know as existing is His gift. Its order, laws, even “reasonableness,” are all reflective of God’s creative work. Non-existence, non-being is the drive of the wicked ones.

Non-existence is not something that can be achieved by created beings, for existence is the gift of God and He alone sustains all things. Thus, the work of those in rebellion is to move things “towards” non-being. Lies, murder, destruction, disarray, deception, and the like are hallmarks of their work.

The demons are not the builders of civilizations, even civilizations that seem to have evil purposes. They corrupt and distort. The farcical “opera” that was the Nazi regime was a demonic attempt at civilization, a mimicry of the true thing.

Its delusional aspects seem so obvious now that people can only wonder how anyone ever took seriously its grand productions and Wagnerian pretensions (the delusions of our own time should be considered as well). The destructive character of that regime began to manifest itself quite early. In almost every effort, its constructions were distortions, an anti-civilization.

Where do the demons lurk in our own time? Look to the places of chaos and destruction, where order is slipping away and violence triumphs. Take note of despair and mayhem, any place where the drive towards non-existence has taken hold. Occasionally these forces manifest themselves in larger eruptions.

The bizarre extremism within radical Islam has all of the hallmarks of the demonic. It is a form of madness, of chaos, unleashed. Other extremes seem bent on the destruction of traditional ideas and norms that have existed for millennia.

The Orthodox resistance to iconoclasm recognizes the true nature of this urge to destruction. For the discussion about icons has never been limited to quiet theological thoughts about the nature of images. Iconoclasm is not a theological position, it is what its Greek name says, “Smashing.”

The smashers in the modern world have multiplied. The revolution of 1917 initially swelled their ranks. Films of icon burnings and Church explosions were only the most visible expressions. The smashing of human beings, images of God, were among the most brutal in all of history.

We see as well the sad cases of individual iconoclasm. The mass murders in schools, theaters, shopping malls (which sometimes seem to occur on a weekly basis) represent the demonic collapse within a single person. The wanton destruction of strangers, murder for the sake of murder, reveals a frightening drive towards non-existence. Of course, such events involve mental illness and other social problems, all of which are exploited by the demons of our time.

But more to the point for readers of this article is the unraveling of existence within our own lives and souls. Solzhenitsyn famously said: “…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

In the existential/spiritual terms that I’ve used here, we must recognize that the forces of disintegration and entropy war within us with the forces of order and true being. And we must recognize that true being only occurs in relationship – for it is the gift of God and has its existence in its giftedness and in its self-offering in return.

This life of receiving and offering extends not only to God but to all persons and things around us. It is nothing other than love. The Scriptures tell us that God is love. We must also understand that love is the only true existence – all else is a distraction and a distortion, a movement towards non-being.

For the individual who can walk through an elementary school and blithely shoot teachers and children, the heart has grown cold – on the order of demonic coldness. But by the same token, we ourselves can walk through any number of crowded places, our hearts filled with judgment and envy, or worse still, nothing at all. The former is only a demonic sacrament of the latter.

The demons in Dostoevsky’s novel ended their melee in an orgy of violence – a short spree that came to nothing. He wrote of other such eruptions of madness. The student Raskolnikov murdered an old woman in the name of a bizarre Nietzschean will to power. Dmitri Karamazov was convicted of murdering his father, though he was only guilty of wanting to. But in both of these latter cases, the outcome was not destruction, but repentance – in prison. Imprisonment for these Dostoevskian heroes is the place of rebirth, just as it was for the author himself.

Repentance, in prison or not, is the only way forward from the nightmare of our present demons. It is love that has grown cold. What we see in our present world is not the result of mistaken political decisions or failures of diplomacy. It is as Solzhenitsyn said – a battle within the heart of every human being. It is there that the demons must be defeated.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Demon Fallen,” by Mikhail Vrubel, painted in 1902.

Rahab’s Faith

The children of Israel as they enter into the Promised Land, Canaan, have a few major challenges ahead of them. Their great leader Moses has died and there are a lot of people in Canaan who do not like, or want the Israelites anywhere near them. The entire generation that set out from Egypt 40 years earlier have all died, except two young men; Joshua and Caleb.

These two men had spied out in advance the Promised Land together for Moses. They had returned enthusiastically about the prospects of Israel’s new homeland confirming what God had already told them. The time was now right to enter into Canaan. The Israelites now under the leadership of Joshua are camped along the Jordan River directly opposite the city of Jericho. 

Wisely Joshua did not get his army ready and just attack. Just as Moses had done years before, Joshua sent spies ahead to gather military information about what lay on the other side of the Jordan and Jericho. The two spies head off and the first person they meet is a woman called Rahab. Was it by sheer chance they meet her out of all the thousands of people they could have met? Was it by sheer chance she would meet two very culturally different men? Rahab’s whole life and her future would soon be changed through this encounter.

What do we know about Rahab? It’s not a name that many women are called today. Many women are called after Mary, Ruth, Hannah, Lydia, Rachel, Rebecca, Sarah, Martha, Elizabeth, All biblical names. But no Rahab. That gives you a clue. Not many men are called Judas either.

The first thing we are told about her is in the very first verse; she is introduced as a prostitute named Rahab. I wonder what she looked like and what she dressed like. She was an immoral woman who had No concept of sexual purity.

She lived in a sex obsessed pagan society that was fanatically devoted to everything that God hates. This culture like Sodom and Gomorrah was on the verge of God’s judgement. Their generational descent into the abyss of moral and spiritual corruption had been intentional, and now it was irreversible.

It appears that Rahab has always been a willing participant plying her trade. Now that God had called for the complete destruction of the entire culture because of their extreme wickedness, why shouldn’t Rahab also receive the just desserts of her own deliberate sin?  Good question.

Rahab as we would say was; the dregs of society. She made her living catering to the most depraved insatiable sexual appetites. It’s hard to imagine how someone like her could ever be changed. Her house was not in some back alley of the city, but perched on the famous walls. She was in a prime location of her red-light district. We could safely assume that her trade was a financial success given the location.

Jericho was part of the Amorite kingdom which was a totally depraved and violent pagan culture. In fact, their culture was so depraved with witchcraft and child sacrifice going back to the time of Abraham that their evil lifestyle was the very reason God granted Abraham and his heirs rights to their land, driving them of it.  So, the spies enter into the city of Jericho to check it out. A bit like a Mission Impossible Team. Looking for a place to spy out the land they came across Rahab. The location of her house seems to have been the ideal spot.

The Israelite spies did not seek to take advantage of her for immoral purposes. Perhaps this being what won her trust over in the first place. They were not here to use and abuse her unlike the other men who came through the doors of her house. These men were different, they were sober and serious.  Presumably, they treated her with dignity and respect while they were staying with her. Maybe they told Rahab something about their God and the ways in which he had saved, lead and provided for them. Amazingly she was spiritually open to the way God was working through these two spies.

 Everyone in Jericho already knew that the Israelite nation was now camped across the river a short distance away. They had heard about the Hebrews escape from Egypt now they were seeing them with their very own eyes. And they were frightened. Rahab now finds herself where she could make a fair bit of money if she turned in these two spies. But she didn’t. She hid them. She misdirected the officials and saved the lives of the two spies, even though this put her at considerable risk of losing her own life.

At this point for someone who lived their life through wicked, corrupt ways it seems alien that someone like her would turn down the chance to make a lot of money, and put her own life at risk. Not only is this sudden change in her attitude unexpected, it runs counter to every instinct that normally would motivate a woman like Rahab.

What could possibly bring such a dramatic change in a person’s life, and in such circumstances. God. God is the answer.

Suddenly God touches her life in some amazing way. Over the years of her tough hardened life; had she come to realise that her life should not be like this. The lies, the perverted sex, the booze, the cheating, the brawling.

Is this the level I am at? I cannot do this anymore. I need a clean break. But how? There comes appoint in a person’s life where this awakening; this light comes on. Everybody is different. For some it’s like a Damascus Road experience, for others it’s more of an Emmaus Road experience, gradual. Either way something changes. With her new-found faith undeveloped as it was, we see immediately that it bears the fruit of action. The bible tells us; ‘faith without deeds is dead’. Rahab did something; she took the spies in, making herself vulnerable. With this act she was putting her faith into action. She not only hid them, she embraced their cause, entrusting her whole future to their God, and our God.

There is absolutely nothing but faith in God, that could have made such a dramatic, sudden change in the character of such a woman. She had heard of the mighty acts and wonders he performed with the Hebrews. Now she had met real flesh and blood people, spies, who knew him and worshipped him. She was prepared to follow them and their God.

What about you today? Have you sat maybe for years in the pews of a church, hearing Sunday by Sunday the stories of God’s mighty acts and his miracles? Listening carefully to the scriptures, and the prayers and the sermon. But that’s as far as it goes. The trust, the stepping out in faith needed; is still absent. After it was clear that the king’s messengers were gone for the night, Rahab went back up to the roof to speak with the spies. It’s really quite amazing what she says to them; ‘ I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great Fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting because of you.’

What was it that caused her in particular to trust in God? It was fear. Fear of God. Is it a bad thing to be frightened of God? No, it’s not. Our affluent western societies across the globe generally speaking have no fear of anything. No fear of the police, the courts, getting caught, libelling or slandering anyone. People generally have no fear.

A life sentence for murder is around 8 years in prison or less. You hire a barrister or better still you get the state to pay for a barrister to get you off. There is no fear of doing wrong. Knife crime in London is out of control.

Years ago, in the UK you would never have heard of a child being suspended from school; now it’s a daily occurrence. Most people have no fear of God. Afterall What’s he going to do? I; am my own authority. My rights trump everyone else. I must be allowed to do what I want to do. And the state will back me up. Right or wrong.

But they forget one thing; there will be a day of judgment for every human being who lives on this planet. That judgement will be carried out by the living God of Israel. This is what Jesus Christ says 1500 years later, after the battle of Jericho; ‘I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’

We all know what happened next. God intervened in a way that made clear to everyone in Canaan that he was fighting for Israel. He demolished the massive walls of Jericho without any military means whatsoever. On the 7th day the Israelites marched around the city 7 times, blew a ram’s horn, and shouted. Instantly the wall of the city fell down flat. All except one part of the wall.

Rahab and her house were spared. In chapter 6 we are told the two spies went into the ruins and brought out Rahab, her father, her mother, her entire family and left them outside the camp of Israel. They received the protection they had been promised.

Rahab is a beautiful example of the transforming power of faith in God. Although she had few spiritual advantages and little knowledge of the truth, her heart was drawn to God. She risked her life, turning her back on a way of life that did not honour God, and walked away from everything but her closest family members. But they too came into the community of God. We never hear of Rahab again in the Old Testament. But her name comes up in the New Testament. Her name is mentioned 3 times in Hebrews and the book of James where she is held up as an Example of faith, for both men and women. Rahab’s faith was anything but dead.

But the most amazing occurrence of Rahab’s name, though in the NT is the very first time it appears. It appears on the very first page, in the very first paragraph, of the first gospel, Matthew.

Matthew begins his account of Christ’s life with a lengthy genealogy tracing the entire lineage of Jesus from the time of Abraham.

There in the list of Jesus’ ancestors’, we unexpectedly come across Rahab’s name. ‘Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David’.

It is highly unusual for women to be named in Hebrew genealogies at all. Yet in the Bible, the greatest manifesto of human rights ever written, Matthew mentions 5 women all of them notable for various reasons; Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Three of them knew what it was like to be an outcast, stigmatised because of who they were. Yet God is able to work all things together for good. Rahab was saved by God spiritually as well as physically not because of her good acts like protecting the spies.

She did not earn God’s favour by any good deeds. She is not a lesson in how to better ourselves through self-improvement. She is a reminder that God by his grace can save even the worst of offenders and turn a habitual sinner into a saint. Proving there is hope for everyone.

Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies,” by James Tissot, painted ca. 1896 to 1802.

Pro-Family Programs And The Healing Of The West

Why do pro-family programs in Eastern Europe drive the Liberal West mad?

While New York has extended the “freedom” to get an abortion up to 40 weeks into pregnancy and the EU continues to fight for its policy of replacing native populations with migrants, the former Eastern Bloc is moving from not just pro-family words but to pro-family political action. This type of lawmaking is another truck load of stones for building a road away from Liberalism.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban during his nation’s equivalent of the “State of the Union Address” relayed to the public his new and very “Illiberal” plans regarding methods for stimulating the birthrate to guarantee a very bright future for Hungarians as a culture. Some of the guarantees he made were as follows according to NBC…

● A Lifetime personal income-tax exemption for women who give birth and raise at least four children.

● A Subsidy of 2.5 million forints ($8,825) toward the purchase a seven-seat vehicle for families with three or more children;

● A Low-interest loan of 10 million forints ($35,300) for women under age 40 who are marrying for the first time.

All three of these measures make families’ lives much easier. To put this into context, as of now Hungarians pay 15% income tax (36% if you include social security + federal training fund payments from employers) and being able to get that money into your wallet for the rest of your life is a very enticing offer to have children.

Although childless EU politicians hate private transport, cars are critical for the family of today. Little children do not fare buses or other public transport very well so it is fantastic that the Hungarian government actually understands this fact and wants to provide families with automobiles. This is a simple yet massively pro-family position. Regarding loans this is where Hungary and Russia align (yet again).

Since 2007 the Russian government has been providing “Motherhood Capital” to women who have more than one child with increasing levels of benefit per child. The key focus of this program is subsidizing the purchase of housing for the families in the program. There are restrictions in place in this program to prevent people from having children simply to get a lump sum of money. The actual funds are never given in cash to the mothers and the purchased apartments cannot be resold until the child(ren) attached to their purchase have reached adulthood.

There are many other nuances to this program but in short that is how it works. Housing in Russia is brutally expensive relative to income levels in a given region and is one of many key factors in birthrate in the nation today, which makes this an extremely pro-family program that can and does change lives.

These projects by Orban and Putin are a landmark step against the anti-family policies advocated by today’s status quo mainstream Child-Free Progressives/Liberals/SJWs. We have seen over the 20th century the total collapse of the family. The cost of this is now becoming evident as fatherless boys more often than not grow up to be useless man-babies not able to do anything for society or lean towards criminality in an attempt to imitate an MTV version of masculinity.

Boys and girls need role models and sadly the television/YouTube is not a very good parent while dad has vanished completely and mom is at work. The effects of the death of the family is not just some sort of Conservative nostalgia, in fact it becoming clearly backed by statistics. For example there is a direct link between divorce and crime and about broken families being linked to the massive increase in drug abuse in the US.

Some would argue that the answer to all of today’s problems in European countries is the need to return to Christianity. Although this is true and returning to a time of values and ideas is necessary to rebuild Europe, trying to recreate some sort of pre-industrial down-on-the-farm utopia is not going to happen and so pro-family policies (rather than just trying to push religion and hope) may just be the answer to almost a century of vicious anti-family policies and economic trends that have lead us to the pit of sorrow we are trapped in.

What we see today, is that it is extremely difficult and expensive to have children. In the past every new child was a potential productive farm worker from an early age, now we have to invest a lot of time and money into children so that they can “pay off” somewhere in their 20’s. Generally only upper-middle class and wealthy men can have their wives stay at home to raise the children, meaning women have to choose between living “well” and having children far too often. And those that live “well” have children who have little or no connection to their tired overworked parents leading to them being unable to forge their own families as adults.

Kids need help from mom nearly 24 hours a day especially when they are sick, meaning that women who work, even with a good husband are very drained and pushed to the edge. By their second or third child they are simply too exhausted to have more, which is totally understandable, but horrible for one’s civilization.

The burden of population is more often than not put on the shoulders of women, when this is very much a men’s issue. At present very few women can really rely on men to stick with them for the rest of their lives, which makes many ladies want to have a career “just in case” the marriage goes south. This back up plan takes time and energy away from the possibility of having children and reduces the population. Furthermore, when women are satisfied with their husbands they are vastly more likely to have many children with him, if men do not provide security for women they cannot be expected to produce armies of kids with no parachute.

What we are seeing here is that women in Eastern Europe (unlike the West) who still chose to have kids, more so than not, are doing so completely against the economic and social framework we live in today.


Divorce rates are high, salaries are painfully low and there are no guarantees or help for them. World-wide motherhood from going from something that is a natural part of women’s lives to becoming a heroic achievement against all odds.

The simple blunt answer to these problems is that motherhood needs to stop being a detriment to the present (with some hope for payout in the future from their children or no pay out at all) and become a viable “career choice” right now. The programs of Putin and Orban should be just the beginning to an Illiberal future where motherhood stops being looked at by lawmakers as some sort of hobby but as a profession that women have the right to engage in and be compensated for.

Some would argue that attempts to help women raise children from the government eliminate the need for men. Essentially the fear is that the government replaces the husband as the caretaker/provider which makes a traditional family impossible. But in an Illiberal context this is not the case.

The means by which women could get the support they need to be professional moms comes from the resources in the country ultimately produced by men. Furthermore, these programs like the ones in Hungary and Russia should always push “marriage” as a key component of the benefits and raising children with a husband is vastly preferable to the overwhelming majority of women and even decades of Hollywood propaganda haven’t changed this.

Although there is usually so much negativity and outrage in the news we can see that when governments orient themselves to pro-tradition, pro-family, Illiberal positions we can actually see society begin to heal from the mental wounds of the “Sexual Revolution”.

These policies are steps in the right direction, but sadly we are still very far from being able to consider “mom” as a profession that is as important to society as cops, infantry, and doctors.

When we can see right in front of our faces that a lack of parenting leads to a form of civilizational destruction that no men in uniform can stop it is time to understand that good motherhood is as important for survival of the tribe as good warriors in fancy uniforms. 

Tim Kirby is an independent journalist, TV and radio host.

The photo shows, “Breakfast Time,” by Harry Brooker, painted 1901.

On Human Rights

First remark

Today, political correctness demands that we say in French droits humains [human rights] when we used to say droits de l’homme [rights of man]. This demand, which also occurs in other areas, is made because the French homme, like ‘man’ in English, does not distinguish between the human race and the male gender. German is better equipped, differentiating between Mensch and Mann. Latin distinguishes between vir and homo, Greek between anèr and anthropos, etc.

We could discuss the reasons for this. However, it is also important to note the introduction of another ambiguity. The adjective ‘human’ in French has a value that corresponds to the usual meaning we now give to the term ‘humanist’ and, more generally, to the moral qualities of ‘care’ (a word which has recently been imported unchanged from English into French), ‘compassion’ or ‘charity’.

The English language attributes this value to the word ‘human’, further ascribing to it a more specific term, ‘humane’. German has introduced, along with menschlish, the words human, humanitär, and Humanität as terms of ethical evaluation.

In other words, human rights can be seen as rights basking in the aura of humanity, since this term, in its currently impoverished and rather ridiculous sense, has taken on the meaning of a ‘love of mankind’ or ‘friendship’ (in French, this is the meaning frequently ascribed to philia).

Now philanthropy — which was actually a secular displacement of the ostensibly all too Christian charity — is based upon a more or less hidden axiom of condescension: it is the act of the rich, cultivated and dominant, who feel benevolence, compassion and pity for the social misfortune of others. For all that, philanthropists have never sought to challenge the social order, except in minor ways.

Philanthropy contains an implicit negation of the respect for the unconditional dignity of all human beings, which appears at the beginning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (hereafter referred to as ‘Declaration’) and is repeated further on. It can even be said to represent an interpretation of dignity that is conservative, selfish and gushing with sentimentality.

Without arguing against the use of the term ‘human rights’, it is necessary to draw attention to the extent of its ambivalence. For whatever the term used, human rights are marked by a certain degree of philanthropy mixed with a promise of ‘social progress’, which is always linked to a ‘larger freedom’. In this sense, freedom prevails over social justice through the resonance, tone and emphasis of the text.

Moreover, the Declaration affirms that ‘the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.’ But what is proclaimed here and cannot be challenged should not be considered the ‘highest aspiration.’ One can and must think that freedom (of speech and belief) does not limit the aspirations of the common people [hommes].

It would not be wrong to say that the people can expect and want different things — engagements, collaborations, relations — things that are larger, infinitely larger and more, than freedoms. Being ‘free from fear and want’ is not the only reality of freedom; there are other stakes that lie beyond any human freedom. Spinoza, for example, who can hardly be accused of being inhuman or an enemy of freedom, considered ‘freedom’ to only exist as the freedom of the entire world (which he called ‘nature or god’).

The independence and autonomy of persons has a long way to go before it reaches its limits, if limits exist. Autonomy should be conceived in relation to the sense of existence, or more exactly, in relation to existence itself — of each, of all and of the world as sense.

Some will object, ‘What do you expect from a declaration of rights? You’re not considering the extent to which your words go beyond the predetermined sphere that constitutes a kind of minimum necessary to free humanity from oppression. You’re departing the realm of right for philosophy, if not for dreams or speculation.’

My response is that it is indeed necessary to enter a philosophical register since the text of the Declaration — and the huge body of texts inspired by it and by the defence of ‘human’ rights — carry an implicit or latent ideology that should be brought to light. In fact, this is the price to be paid in order to avoid the self-righteous inanity of such ‘rights’. The self-righteousness here is that of a ‘humanism’ of European origin, which one must always remember ‘does not think the humanitas of man high enough’, as Heidegger wrote.

Pascal, another European, said the same thing much earlier but in a different way: ‘Man infinitely surpasses man’. Pascal was a Christian. Heidegger, on the contrary, believed that he could find the force of re-foundation in an anti-Christian direction. Today, all these references are written off, and human rights float more or less on the surface of the ‘icy water of egotistical calculation’.

Second remark

The Declaration is based — as a declaration of rights, that is to say, as a juridical production or juris-dictio — on the following sentence:

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

This is the third of seven ‘considérants’ (‘whereas’) after which the text proceeds with the actual declaration. The French text reads:

Considérant qu’il est essentiel que les droits de l’homme soient protégés par un régime de droit pour que l’homme ne soit pas contraint, en suprême recours, à la révolte contre la tyrannie et l’oppression.

We will pass quickly over the complex and fragile character of a proposition that seeks to avoid a resort to rebellion. It is clear that this resort is seen as something ‘compelled’ and that this compulsion can engender ‘tyranny and oppression.’ In 1948, in a text drafted by a committee of nine members whose political and intellectual composition calls for lengthy analysis, tyranny and oppression focused on the fascisms that had just been defeated.

In a sense, the Declaration is part of the general movement that, somehow nebulously, fosters the condemnation of ‘fascism’ and what this word would, over a long period, ignominiously signify. However, any questioning of the underlying reasons for the rise of fascisms is relegated to the background, if not even further.

There is no examination, from the perspective of democracy and 20th century capitalism, of what could have facilitated or even caused the emergence of fascisms. There is, therefore, no opportunity to consider other possibilities of oppression — and consequently of rebellion — like those represented by the abominable figure of a Head of State or Leader flanked by party apparatus, police and mythology.

Here, again, some will protest. The preceding sentences will be criticised for being unacceptably suspicious of the virtuous words of the Declaration. I was careful above to write, ‘in a sense’, and to limit myself to pointing out the absence of examination, nothing more.

In all sincerity, I am not trying to construct a machinery of denunciation. Yet it is difficult to dispute that the question of ‘humanism’ has been continually refined or deepened, according to different views. This has occurred along the road from the defeat of fascism to the unbridled expansion of capitalism, which is undermining human rights in an increasingly obvious way.

It is a road that passes through the other collapse of so-called ‘socialisms’ and, today, through the various tensions in religious and/or communitarian movements. ‘Humanism’ is strictly coeval with mercantile civilization, techno-scientific development and democracy. ‘Human rights’ are not absolutely pristine, as their prehistory in Roman law [droit] after a certain period already shows. They derive from Roman legal culture, transported first out of Roman civil religion and then out of Christianity to fertilise the spirit of modern law [droit] and especially so-called ‘natural’ law [droit].

Now, it is here that we must consider the other clause of this ‘whereas’. The French version provides a striking statement: Human rights must be protected by the rule of law [régime de droit]. The English distinguishes rights and law, the Italian distinguishes diritti and norme giuridiche, whereas other languages (e.g. Greek or German) repeat, like the French, the same term. Perhaps the Latin translation best clarifies the distinction in stating that: hominum jura civitatis forma quae justa est tegi (human rights must be covered by a just civil form).

This is much more than a linguistic curiosity. Repeating a single term (droit) or distinguishing two terms (rights and law), indicates the same difficulty: do rights [droits] exist that have not been established by law [droit]? Here the Declaration declares its own necessity: it is not just a formulation, words solemnly declared.

The Declaration is the legal institution of the rights it declares. If we leave aside the well-known American and French antecedents that paved the way, prior to the Declaration only factual rights and not legal rights [droits de droit] existed. At most, some of these rights pre-existed as rights of certain States, the United Kingdom, the USA and France in particular. But what are ‘factual’ rights or national rights with regard to international law? These two distinct questions are in part intertwined.

These questions share a concern about the foundation of a right in general. The idea of ‘human rights’ brings to light the extraordinary difficulty of founding right, if not the impossibility of such a foundation. We have sought to dismiss the idea of ‘natural rights’, which represents an internal contradiction because their non-positive (in the legal sense) character prevents legal enforcement and sanction.

Yet we have invoked a ‘minimum norm’ (Rawls) which is necessary for the constitution of a just State or of the State under the rule of ‘law’ [Etat de ‘droit’] as it is popularly called today. This is no less lacking in foundations, in the fullest sense of the word, than ‘natural’ rights.

Hannah Arendt also showed how the national appropriation of ‘human rights’ gave rise to categories of persons without rights (refugees, displaced and stateless persons). It follows from these analyses that forms of non-right have not stopped imposing their iron law within positive rights, with the help of economic, technical, and political chaos.

Undoubtedly, the ‘right to have rights’, as Arendt formulated it, is plain to see: we can recognise neither the quality of the human being, nor, perhaps, that of the existent in general, without the involvement of this right. However, this again says nothing about the nature of this singular ‘right’ or about the possibility of its recognition, which should be universal and prior — if not superior — to any determined legal institution.

It is well known that the powerlessness of international law [droit] — of what passes under this name — or perhaps the basic impossibility of such a law [droit] (yet called for, desired and proclaimed by philosophical humanism for more than two centuries and formally declared in the 20th Century) impedes its effective implementation.

But as Hegel says, what is well known is not known at all. What remains here unknown is nothing other than the absence of foundation of right in general. This absence is not temporary or contingent: it is constitutive, I would even say that it is ‘constituent’ of right.

Indeed, right can only exist or be guaranteed by a divine authority, whatever that may be. In such a case, it is not a question of right, if something worthy of this name requires the continuing possibility of recovery, transformation and re-creation in the various practical circumstances — technical, political, cultural and spiritual — to which it must respond.

Both the history of legislated rights of the Roman type as well as the customary rights of the Anglo-Saxon type clearly show that an essential plasticity of right exists within the fixity that the law, no less essentially, requires.

Both the interminable ascent to the ‘basic norm’ in a pyramid of norms (Kelsen) and the recourse to an ultimate power to decide the exception (Schmitt), the right to exceed right, converge towards a passage to the limit.

Right can only be exposed to such a passage; it is by nature the institution of what cannot be instituted, in other words of justice in the non-legal sense of the word. And it is not by seeking a categorical legal imperative that we can hope to found such a justice since the universal can be found neither here nor in a Kantian imperative, where it is reduced to the representation of ‘nature’ as a ‘type’ or nondeterministic model of morality.

In a sense, which itself passes on to the limit of sense, justice consists in rendering justice. This is not ‘to render the justice’, which assumes a determined or instituted justice. This is rendering to someone or something the justice that this person or thing — event, work, any form of existent — deserves.6 But what does each X deserve? Each X deserves an infinite recognition of its singularity. In other words, the justice that must be rendered to X is a justice whose nature and extent or non-naturalness and incommensurability only X can determine.

This justice must be effectively rendered, given back, returned to any X. This justice must be recognised for every X. Justice must be done to X and yet it is not it — whatever it is, tree or man [homme] — that can produce its due and present it as ‘justice’ or as ‘right’. This justice rests on the unfoundable certainty that it is just that that exists. On the certainty, therefore, that it is just that the world exists even though nothing can justify its existence.

Unjustifiable justice, far from founding any kind of rights — as extensive as these may be — opens up instead an infinite perspective that exceeds all possibility of right. From this infinity and to this infinity, all things and every singularity proceed and return.

This perspective must remain present beyond the horizon of right; for without an appeal or a sign towards it, right can only fall back into its inevitable fragility, whether of impotence, arbitrariness, relativity or rigidity. The greatest merit of ‘human rights’ is to bring out all these difficulties and all of these exigencies. The aim of these two simple remarks was, within their narrow limits, to draw attention to this.

Translated from the French by Gilbert Leung.

The photo shows, “The Fair” by Vladimir Egorovich Makovsky, painted in 1885.

Fake Religion

The TV programme Fake Britain is usually on in the morning. It’s quite interesting to watch. The Programme is about criminals in Britain who sell things to people like you and me, that are not real; they are fake.

It used to be that police would have raided Sunday markets like the one at Nutt’s Corner in Belfast years ago, where dodgy traders were selling off videos and cigarettes that were fake. Generally, those were the two main items.

Today There is hardly any household item that cannot be replicated as a fake. Even the new £5 notes have had to have special holograms printed on them; something the criminals have not mastered …..…yet. But they will.  Everything from Christmas tree lights, to perfume, to watches, trainers, even food can be sold as counterfeit.

Everything it seems can be a fake. Including religion. With regard to religion It’s not just fake; its counterfeit. Its looks identical; the same as the real thing. In other words, there is hardly anything on the surface that separates the counterfeit from the real thing. They both look identical.

In this parable of the wheat and the tares, or the wheat and the weeds; this is what Jesus is at pains to talk about. The tare is a type of weed.

 There are 8 parables in this chapter of Matthew and the first two have to do with soils and crops and growing.

All of them though, have to do with the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about the Good things concerning the kingdom as well as the Bad things.

 Jesus was a country boy and he liked telling parables about what he saw going on in the countryside and the natural world.

Growing crops like wheat in bible times and today is something vitally important for us; but so is the meaning of the parable.

 We need to understand that when the farmer sows the field with wheat, almost immediately weeds start to grow up alongside the tender shoots. These weeds are called Darnel. This weed called Darnel and immature wheat look very alike in the early stages of growth. In fact, you cannot tell them apart.

 Thankfully this is an easy parable for us to figure out, because Jesus tells us what it means. The meaning of the parable stumped the disciples, so he tells them and us what it means from verse 37. It’s pretty clear. This is what it means.

The one who sows the GOOD seed is Jesus. The field is the world. The GOOD seeds are Jesus’ true followers, the true Christians.

The weeds or the Tares are the sons of the devil. And the one who sows the weed, the enemy, is the devil. It’s not God. God does Not sow the Weeds. He sows the Good Seeds. Then comes the harvest, and the harvesters are the angels. 

It’s a straight forward parable but there are a few puzzlingly things that emerge from it.

Number 1. The Devil has a family; and His family are made up of counterfeits.

 In other words, they are imitators of the true faith. The first imitator of faith was Cain the son of Adam and Eve. In the book of Genesis, we are told He had a brother called Abel and both men were religious.  What did Cain do? He killed his own brother because he was jealous of his brother’s relationship with God.

Then when God asked Cain, where is your brother? Cain lied by saying,’ I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper. Cain was a member of the devil’s family.

 If you go on and read about some of the kings of Judah and Israel you will find they are also family members. The devil has sadly, a very large family.

In the New Testament which gets much closer to the truth; who are the next group of people we discover who belong to the devil’s family? Any ideas?

 It’s……. the Pharisees and Scribes. Now you may think they are just misguided but well-intentioned people. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus susses them out right away. He knows where they stand in relation to him; and who they stand with.

 The Pharisee and scribes were the ruling religious leaders and had been around for hundreds of years. What did they think of Jesus??

 Well After Jesus healed a demon possessed man, they said; ‘it is only by the devil, the prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons. Its only through the devil he does this.

Jesus knew where the Pharisees stood; he called them a brood of vipers several times. Vipers are poisonous snakes and can be very deadly.

After a relentless war of words, the Pharisees had waged against Jesus throughout his ministry Jesus says this about them. Reading from Matthew 23.

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.’

Pretty strong stuff. Jesus does not mince his words. It’s as well the NI Equality Commission wasn’t there to hear Jesus speak.

Jesus goes on; ‘You appear to people as righteous but, on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

Now this is important to note; NOWHERE does Jesus ever say that if you are Not a child of God, then you are a child of the devil. He never says that. The only people he says that about are……….. the religious leaders; the Pharisees.

Jesus knows where each person stands with him. These people are members of Satan’s family and they do his bidding for him. The devil comes to us the bible says; as an angel of light, always hiding his true intentions.

You see The Pharisees appeared to others as very religious people, who prayed, tithed, carried the scriptures around with them. They looked the real deal. The rabbi’s still do to this day.

That’s the first point. The Devil is real; he exists and he has a religious family. You can see why this parable isn’t preached on very often.

The Second point is this; The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  It belongs to God; NOT the devil. The forests are his, as well as the cattle on a thousand hills. The Field in this parable is the world.

 Jesus in this parable is NOT dealing with the problem of evil in the world. This parable is NOT about evil creeping into the world.

 Jesus is dealing with a specific truth; namely and this is what this parable is all about; That wherever God plants a true child of God, the devil comes along and plants a counterfeit, who looks like the real deal. It’s a fact.

The devil is a neighbour; whether we like that or not. He lives beside us. He is in our neighbourhood.

 Jesus is the sower AND owner of the field. The earth belongs to God and the devil is a trespasser. It is NOT his world.

Many times, and with the news we hear daily we think it is. But it will never be the devil’s world and the devil knows this. And so He causes dissension, strife, wars, and rumours of wars, chaos, AND plants counterfeits. That is his MO. His Modus Operandi.

The servants wake up one day to find, weeds growing in the field alongside the good seed. Immediately they ask; ‘Where did the weeds come from.’ ‘An enemy did this’, replies Jesus.

The natural response is; the servants ask him; do you want us to go and pull them up?

 Jesus says NO; ‘because while you are pulling the weeds up, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest’. 

Surely you pull the weeds up right away; pull up these counterfeits, these distorters of the truth. You Get rid of them. Don’t you.

The fact is; Jesus is NOT worried about the weeds.

God is in control of the world. Remember the earth is the Lords. We get anxious about who will be the next prime minister, Brexit, the EU, our pension, our savings, our children, our parents, selling our home. Moving jobs.

 There will be a harvest; and it IS going to come at the end of the age. God will tell the angels Not us, to gather up the weeds, tie them in bundles and burn them.

Then HE will gather the wheat and it shall be brought into his barn. Two very different outcomes. Very Similar to how he treats the sheep and the goats later on in the book of Matthew. The sheep on his right, and the goats to his left.

The people and nations in this world are living on Substitutes. You can buy sleep and drugs, but not PEACE; you can buy entertainment but not JOY; you can buy companionship but not LOVE.

The three things the bible says are essential for living and having a good life; are Peace, Joy and Love. If you have those 3 within you; you are blessed.

People all around us are living on substitutes. They need to eat the food from God’s harvest. Instead they are eating steadily, even gorging themselves on substitutes, on counterfeits fed to them by the devil. He has blinded them to their folly.

This world for the Christian is not a playground; it’s a battle ground where we encounter all around us demonic led forces who persist in trying to deceive us and destroy us. But take heart; Jesus says; ‘I have Overcome the world’.

 Jesus is Not subject to the world; nor should his followers.

Oh, it would be great if Jesus would pull up all the weeds right now and burn them. NO; he says; but one day I will. Just Leave that to me. That’s my job.

Here’s a question for you. Why do you think he’s NOT doing it now? Why is he waiting and waiting? The time is Not right. But also…….

It’s because we have a job to do LIVING and Working among the weeds, among the tares. We have work to do for the Kingdom of God. That’s why God dosn’t pull us up and send us directly to heaven. We are to be active in the things that matter to God and not apathetic or indifferent as we live our lives. We are to be on the ball and not sleep walk into the devil’s schemes.

In his love and through his mercy he gives the weeds time to repent and believe. Some may do it; some will not. But it shows us that even with counterfeits God in his grace grants them a chance to turn from their wicked ways right up to the harvest.

God plants Christians where he wants to. He scatters them to grow for a reason or a season. You are planted where you are; in a family, in a job, in a neighbourhood, in a farm, in a church, in a village, for a reason. To live a life worthy of God. To live a God honouring life.

To grow strong and firm in faith where many around you are living on substitutes. Our lives are to be lived out differently and distinctly to those around us.

This at times can be very hard going especially when we face obstacles and setbacks along the way. Which we will. Even in our own families, as Jesus did.

Sometimes we feel like throwing the towel in. But we keep on going. We keep living among the weeds. Remember; The one who is in us; is Greater than he, who is in the world.


Rev. Alan Wilson is a Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland, where he serves a large congregation, supported by his wife. Before he took up the call to serve Christ, he was in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30-years. He has two children and two grandchildren and enjoys soccer, gardening, zoology, politics and reading. He voted for Brexit in the hope that the stranglehold of Brussels might finally be broken. He welcomes any that might wish to correspond with him through the Contact Page of The Postil.

The photo shows, “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares” by John Everett Millais, painted in 1865.

St. Ephrem On The Last Judgment

This reflection on the Last Judgment was written in a letter by St. Ephrem to a man named Publius. Nothing is known of him.

YOU WOULD do well not to let fall from your hands the polished mirror of the holy Gospel of your Lord, which reproduces the image of everyone who gazes at it and the likeness of everyone who peers into it. While it keeps its own natural quality, undergoes no change, is devoid of any spots, and is free of any soiling, it changes its appearance before colors although it itself is not changed .

Before white things it becomes [white] like them.

Before black things, it becomes dark like them.

Before red things [it becomes] red like them.

Before beautiful things, it becomes beautiful like them and before ugly things, it becomes hideous like them.

It paints every detail on itself. It rebukes the ugly ones for their defects so that they might heal themselves and remove the foulness from their faces. It exhorts the beautiful to be watchful over their beauty and even to increase their natural beauty with whatever ornaments they wish, lest they become sullied with dirt.

Although it is silent, it speaks.

Although it is mute, it cries out.

Although it is reckoned as dead, it makes proclamation.

Although it is still, it dances.

Although it has no belly, its womb is of great expanse.

And there in those hidden inner chambers every limb is painted and every body is framed in a bare fraction of a second. Within it they are created with undetectable quickness.

  1. For this mirror is a foreshadowing of the holy tidings of the outer Gospel, within which is depicted the beauty of the beautiful ones who gaze at it. Also within it the blemishes of the ugly ones who are despised are put to shame. And just as this natural mirror is a foreshadowing of the Gospel, so also is the Gospel a foreshadowing of that heavenly unfading beauty by which all the sins of Creation are reproved and by which reward is given to all those who have preserved their beauty from being defiled with filth. To everyone who peers into this mirror, his sins are visible in it. And everyone who takes careful notice will see in it that portion which is reserved for him, whether good or evil.

There the kingdom of heaven is depicted and can be seen by those who have a pure eye.

There the exalted ranks of the good ones can be seen.

There the high ranks of the middle ones can be discerned.

There the lowly ranks of the evil ones are delineated.

There the beautiful places, which have been prepared for those worthy of them, are evident.

There Paradise can be seen rejoicing in its flowers.

  1. In this mirror, Gehenna in flames can be seen by those who deserve to dwell there.

In Paradise there are joyous promises for the good as they wait for [the day] when they will receive their masters with uncovered faces. But in Gehenna, the promises for the wicked will be grievous at the time when they see their masters abased in stature.

There the outer darkness can be seen clearly and from within it can be heard the sound of wailing and weeping, of groans, and of gnashing of teeth.

There in their bonds people wail as they are tortured, and it becomes more intense according to their wickedness so that they are punished with all justice.

  1. There that rich man, who used to wear different clothes every day and used to take delight in his luxuries, wails from anguish inside Sheol.

There the groaning cry of the rich man can be heard crying out to Abraham, the father of the just, “Send Lazarus, your son, to moisten my tongue for I am afflicted, for my sins are burning me up and my evil deeds like coals of a broom tree are roasting me.”

And there was sent from the mouth of the just One to that evildoer a direct reply, like a swift messenger with swift wings flying over that dreadful chasm’s that has been set as a boundary between the good and the evil. And that letter of justice, which was written by the mouth of the just One, was carried forthwith and sent to the deaf ear of that one who had never opened the gate of his ear for any holy voice to enter. And in that letter, which it carried like a speedy messenger, were drawn those gentle sounds of just judgment: “My son, remember that you received your precious and luxurious things while you were alive whereas at that time Lazarus received his evils and his afflictions. And now he is unable to come to help you in your torments because you did not help him when he was in anguish from his diseases. For this reason you are seeking his aid just as he once sought your aid. But you refused. Now he is unable to come because that great chasm, which cannot be crossed, is between us. No one from you can come to us, nor can any from us come to you. ”

  1. Fix the eye of your mind and gaze on this mirror of which I spoke to you above.

Notice the twelve thrones that are fashioned on it for judgment.

Notice how the tribes stand there trembling and how the many nations stand there quaking.

Notice how their bodies shake and their knees knock. Notice how their hearts palpitate and how their minds pine.

Notice how their faces are downcast and how their shame is thick upon them like darkness.

Notice how their souls languish and how their spirits flicker.

Notice how their tears overflow and soak the dust beneath them.

Notice how their complexions are changing to green. One takes on that color and hands it on to his companion.

Notice their faces, which used to be joyful, have been transformed to look like soot from a cauldron.

Hear their many groans and their wailing moans.

Hear their sighs of grief and their churning innards.

Notice their deeds:

those that were in secret have now become manifest;

those that were done in darkness now shine forth like the sun;

those that they had committed in secret now make their complaint with loud voice.

Notice how everyone stands, his deeds before him justly accusing him in the presence of his judge.

Notice how their evil thoughts have now taken on shape and stand before their masters to accuse them .

Notice their slanderous whisperings crying out in a loud voice, and how the snares once hidden are now revealed before them.

A little further …

  1. Notice that Judge of righteousness as He sits, the Word of His Father,

the Wisdom of His nature, the Arm of His glory,

the Right Hand of His mercy, the Ray of His Light,

the Manifestation of His rest,

that One Who is equal in essence with the One Who begot Him, that One Whose nature is commensurate with the nature from Which He sprang forth,

that One Who is at once near and far from Him,

that One Who is at once joined with Him and separated from Him,

in His presence and not at a distance, at His right hand and not far away, Who shares the same dwelling but not as a foreigner, the Gate of life,

the Way of truth,

the propitiatory Lamb, the pure Sacrifice,

the Priest Who remits debts, the Sprinkling that purifies, the One who created [all] that was made,

the One Who formed and the One Who established, the One Who fashioned creatures,

the One Who gives senses to the dust, Who clothes the earth with perception, Who gives movement to all flesh,

Who separates the places of every species, Who differentiates faces without number, Who renews the minds of all races, Who sows all wisdom everywhere,

Who stretches out the heavens, Who adorned them with lights,

Who gave names to them all,

Who spread out the earth on a foundation that cannot be touched,

Who is the architect of the mountains, Who built the high places,

Who commands the grasses, Who causes trees to spring forth, Who causes woodplants to give seed, who causes fruit to grow,

Who distinguishes tastes,

Who gives color to blossoms and shape to all flowers,

Who measures heaven with His span, with that power that can not be measured,

Who meted out in the palm of His hand the dust of the earth in that right hand which cannot be meted out,

Who weighed the mountains on scales with a knowledge that cannot be comprehended,

and the hills on a balance with an unerring understanding

by which the gathering places of the seas that envelop all Creation and the depths of the sea that cannot be grasped by us are considered to be even less than a drop there before Him.

  1. God from God,

the second Light of Being,

the Treasure House of all riches that have been or will be made,

the Judge of the tribes, the Measure of justice, the Scale without deceit, the even Measuring Rod, the Measuring Bowl that is not false, Wisdom that does not err,

Intelligence that cannot pass away, the Renewer of creatures,

the Restorer of natures,

the Resuscitator of mortality,

Who rolls away the cloud of darkness, Who brings to an end the reign of iniquity, Who destroys the power of Sheol,

Who shatters the sting of evil, Who brings captives to the light, Who raises up from Abaddon those who were cast down, Who removes the darkness,

Who makes worthy of rest,

Who opens mouths that had been shut and Who breathes in life just as of old.

  1. Look then upon that Divine Child Whose names surpass the reckoning of mortals and Whose titles are more numerous than the computations of the earth:

King of kings,

the Messiah affirmed by the prophets,

Who spoke through the Prophets,

Who sends the Spirit,

Who sanctifies every soul in the Spirit, for His aid is manifest.

Consider this Only-Begotten, the multitude of His names, this One Who does the will of Him Who sent Him, this One Whose will fulfills the will of Him Who begot Him. Look at Him, on that day, sitting at the right hand of Him Who begot Him, in that hour, placing the sheep at His right hand and the goats at His left hand, at that moment, calling out to His blessed ones, while giving them thanks, “Come, inherit that kingdom,” which from of old had been made ready for them in His knowledge and which from the beginning had been prepared for them.

When He was hungry they fed Him in the poor.

He was thirsty and they gave Him to drink in the disabled.

He was naked and they clothed Him in the naked.

He was imprisoned and they visited Him in the imprisoned.

He was a stranger and they took Him in with the aliens.

He was sick and they visited Him in the infirm.

And when they did not make their good works known before Him, those same beautiful works, which were depicted on their limbs, sounded the trumpet and gave witness on their behalf. Like luscious fruits on beautiful trees they hung on them and stood like bunches in order to be witnesses to the truth that these persons had truly wrought them.

  1. For just as the deeds of the wicked are their accusers before the righteous judge, making them bend and bow down their heads silently in shame, so also their beautiful deeds plead cause for the good before the Good One. For the deeds of all mankind are both silent and speak – silent by their nature, yet they speak when one sees them.

(2) In that place, there is no interrogation, for He is the judge of knowledge; nor is there any response, for when He sees it, He hears. He hears with sight and He sees with hearing. Because in that one thing, which is not a composite, is hearing and sight, swiftness, touch, sensation, smell, taste, discernment, knowledge, and judgment. Also by that which is not a composite, there is given out the reward of good things and the punishment of evil things to the two sides: those on the right hand and those on the left.

(3) It is not that there really are a right and a left in that place, but rather these are names for those who are honored among us and for those in our midst who are unworthy. Rather we reckon that there is a throne for the judge in that place -and we call the place of the good “the right,” while we label the place of the wicked “the left.” We call the good “sheep” because of their docility, and we call the wicked “goats” because of their impudence. We call His justice “a balance” and His retribution to us “the measure of truth.”

  1. Take firm hold, then, of this clear mirror of the divine Gospel in your two hands and look at it with a pure eye that is able to look at that divine mirror. For not everyone is able to see himself in it, but only the one whose heart is discerning, whose mind is sympathetic, and whose eye desires to see its helper. Look at it, then, and see all the images of Creation, the depiction of the children of Adam, both the good and the wicked. Within it can be observed the beautiful images of the works of the good and the unsightly images of the deeds of the wicked. They are conceived within it so that at their time they might be given birth either to praise those who did [the good works] or to rebukes those who performed [the evil deeds]. See that just as here [the mirror] rebukes the ugly, so also there will it manifest within itself their ugly deeds. Just as here it sets out the good for praise, so there will it also mark out in itself their beautiful deeds.
  2. At times even we when we were in error, mired in the pride of our mind as if with our feet in the mud, did not perceive our error because our soul was unable to see itself. Although we would look [into the mirror] each day, we would grope around in the dark like blind men because our inner mind did not possess that which is necessary for discernment. Then, as if from a deep sleep, the mercy of the Most High, poured out like pure rain, was sprinkled on our drowsiness and from our sleep we were roused and boldly took up this mirror to see our self in it. At that very moment we were convicted by our faults and we discovered that we were barren of any good virtue and that we had become a dwelling place for every corrupting thought and a lodge and an abode for every lust.
  3. I saw there virtuous people and I longed for their beauties, [I saw] the places whereon the good were standing and I earnestly desired their dwellings.

I saw their bridal chambers on the opposite side into which no one who did not have a lamp was allowed to enter.

I saw their joy and I sat mourning the fact that I possessed none of the deeds that were worthy of that bridal chamber.

I saw that they were arrayed in a garment of light, and I was distressed that no noble garments had been prepared for me.

I saw their crowns, which were adorned with victory, and I was grieved that I had no victorious deeds with which I might be crowned.

I saw there virgins knocking [at the gate], and there was no one who would open it for them, and I wailed because I lacked the deeds of that blessed ointment.

  1. I saw there many crowds shouting at the gate and no one would respond to them, and I was alarmed that I had none of those virtues that had the power to open the gate of the kingdom.

I heard the clamor of many voices saying, “Lord, Lord, open [the gate] for us.” And a voice from there fell upon myears, swearing to itself, “I do not know you” to be worthy of salvation.

I saw there those who were pleading, “We ate and drank in your presence,” but [the voice] answered and said to them, “It is not I Whom you sought but only that you ate bread and were satisfied.”

  1. I also, like them, had always taken refuge in His name and had been honored in His honors and had always wrapped His name like a cloak over my hidden faults, but fear then seized me, terror shook me, and a great alarm counseled me to turn back so that perhaps those provisions required for that narrow way that leads to the land of the living might come to me. For I saw no one there who was able to give any relief to his companion or to moisten his tongue in that burning fire. For that deep chasm, which keeps the good separate from the wicked, did not allow them to give any relief to those others.
  2. I saw there pure virgins whose virginity, because it was not adorned with the precious ointment of desirable deeds, was rejected. They implored their fellow virgins to give them some assistance, but they received no mercy and [they asked] that they might be given the opportunity to go and purchase for themselves some deeds, but this was not permitted them because the end, their departure from this life, was coming quickly. I drew near to the gate of the kingdom of heaven and I saw there those who did not bear the title “virgin” who were crowned with victorious deeds, for their virtues filled the place of virginity. For just as those who had been espoused to Him only in their bodies had been rejected because they were naked of any garment of good deeds, so too those who had espoused their bodies in a chaste marriage while their spirit was bound to the love of their Lord were chosen, and they wore their love for Him like a robe with [their] desire for Him stretched over all their limbs.
  3. And when I saw those there, I said to myself, “No one from henceforth should rely solely on the chaste name of virginity when it is lacking those deeds that are the oil for the lamps.” And while I was being reproved by this dreadful vision of others being tortured, I heard another voice from the mouth of the mirror crying out, “Keep watch, O feeble one, over your wretched soul. ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’” Have you not heard children shouting to you, “If a man gain the whole world yet lose his soul what will he gain?” or, “What shall he give in return for his soul?” Do you not see what happened to that man whose land yielded abundant crops because he said to his soul, “My soul, eat and drink, be at ease, and enjoy yourself for abundant crops have been gathered in for you for many years?” Have you not heard that while this word was yet sweet in his mouth a bitter word was poured into the womb of his ear.” Although it had no understanding, it cried out saying, “On this very night your beloved soul is required of you. This thing which you have prepared, whose will it be?”
  4. Be alarmed by this your seal, and consider where all the children of Adam are, who like locust have swarmed over the earth since the first day. Rouse yourself from this deep sleep that is enfeebling you and that is spreading over all your limbs like a shadow of death. Rise, then, and bring yourself back to those former generations about which you have heard. Where is Adam? Where are your fathers who like fatted sheep lived luxuriously in the midst of the Paradise of Eden, who like friends spoke fearlessly with God, whose arms made all creatures obedient to their authority, whose power held the authority over sea and dry land, whose feet tread upon the dreadful serpents and before whom those beasts, which are rebellious nowadays, bent their necks, whose minds used to reach up to heaven and to seek out the deepest part of the deep as if it were dry land?
  5. Where are those ten generations from Adam to Noah? Were they not washed away in that flood of waters?

Where are those generations of the Sodomites? Were they not also swept away in a flood of fire?

Where are those generations from then until today?

Where are those who in that time used to live for almost a thousand years?

Have they not diminished and passed away? If the ink written on goatskins had not preserved for us the memory of their names, we would not even have known that they had ever existed.

  1. Come, I will lead you out to the gloomy sepulchres.

Come down, in your mind, with me even to lowest Sheol and I will show you there kings cast down upon their faces, their crowns buried in the dust with them.

Come, see the princes, those who once luxuriated in silks, how the worm has now become their bed and the grub their covering.

Come, look at those military chiefs who used to command thousands of armies, how they have become useless vessels of dust and things of no understanding.

Look carefully at the dust of the earth and consider that it is your kin. How long will you delude yourself and think that you are any better than the grass on the housetops? For the heat of one day dries out the grass. The burning fever of a single day also causes a desirable body to become parched.

(2) Where are the kings, their raiment, their crowns, or their purple ? Where are their dominions, their battles, their armies, their companies, their treasuries, or their wealth? See how their spears are shattered, their bows destroyed, their swords rusted, their arms eaten by worms. Their generations have departed and passed on, the threads of their lives are severed like a tent full of worms at their death, and like a web about to be cut; their military expeditions are cut down and they are brought to ruin.

  1. Notice how their songs have turned to mourning, their harps to the sound of weeping, how their laughter is overcome by mourning, their sweet melodies by songs of lamentation. The garment of a spider has been woven for them there and a bed of worms lies beneath them and a covering of moths is spread over them like a tunic. Tables lie upended before them. Their splendid state of luxury is completely reversed. Their administration is destroyed and is rendered useless. Their glory is laid out in the dust and all their luxury is also buried there in ashes. Bridegrooms are plundered and brides are forsaken who have been thrown out of their bridal chambers, and the crowns have withered on their heads and together with them they are sprinkled with the dust from the earth. Over them is spread a garment of darkness which Sheol has woven for them on a dingy loom. From every mouth there you hear the sound of wailing because there is no one there who can console his companion.
  2. Everything that their eyes see causes them suffering, for when they reach out to the boundary of the chasm, they quickly pass over it and fly to the garden of Eden and hover over the Paradise of God and see the blessed place of rest and are filled with desire for the banquet tables of the kingdom. And they hear the sound of pure melodies combined with holy songs and intermingled with the praises of God. And as they stretch out they soar to heaven and the gates of the kingdom are opened. Before their Lord they hover with joy, sending only the sound of their mouths back and forth to each other. There the vision of their eyes is allowed to come and go, and on the two sides it either grieves or gives joy so that when the good look out upon the wicked their lot increases and they rejoice therein. But, as for the wicked, their souls are condemned and their distress is multiplied.
  3. Perhaps, for the wicked, that which they see is Gehenna, and their separation is what burns them with their mind as the flame. That hidden judge who dwells in the discerning mind has spoken and there has become for them the judge of righteousness and he scourges them without mercy with torments for the compunction of their soul. Perhaps, it is this that separates them and sends each of them to the place suitable for him. Perhaps, it is this that lays hold of the good with its extended right hand and sends them to the Exalted Right Hand. It also takes hold of the wicked in its left hand, equal in power, and casts them into the place which is called “the left.””’ And perhaps, it is this that silently accuses them and quietly pronounces judgment upon them.
  4. In this matter, I believe the inner mind has been made judge and law, for it is the embodiment of the figure of the law and itself is the figure of the Lord of the law. And for this reason there is given to it complete authority to be portioned out in every generation although it is one, to be imprinted on every body although it is indivisible,

to be painted on every heart although it is inseparable,

to fly over all without tiring,

to rebuke all without shame,

to teach and guide all without compulsion,

to counsel them with no constraint on them,

to remind them of the judgment to come while cautioning them,

to recall to them the kingdom of heaven so that they might yearn for it,

to point out to them the beneficent rewards so that they might desire them,

to show them the severity of the judgment so they might restrain themselves,

to make known to them the sweetness of the Only-Begotten so that they might be comforted.

With them [the mind] runs after all good things, strengthening them. Over them it flies when they incline to hated things and reproves them. For its mercy is similar to that of its Lord in that it does not turn away from them when they are defiled with impurities and is not ashamed of them when they are wallowing in the mud. As for those who obey it, it will remember them and as for those who do not heed it, it will recall to them. Here it is mingled with them in every form whereas there it stands before them on this day [of judgment].

  1. And when I saw these things in that bright mirror of the holy Gospel of my Lord, my soul became weak and my spirit was at an end and my body was bent down to the dust; my heart was filled with bitter groans that perhaps my stains might be made white by the washing of my tears. And I remembered that good Lord and kindly God who cancels through tears the bond of those in debt and accepts lamentation in the place of burnt sacrifices. When I came to this point, I took refuge in repentance and I hid myself beneath the wings of compunction. I sought refuge in the shade of humility and I said, “What more than these am I required to offer to Him who has no need of sacrifices and burnt offerings?” Rather, a humble spirit, which is the perfect sacrifice that is able to make propitiation for defects, a broken heart in the place of burnt offerings, and tears of propitiation in the place of a libation of wine are things which God will not reject.”
  2. That, then, which I saw in that living mirror that speaks, on which the images of all the deeds of men move from Adam until the end of the world and from the resurrection until the day of the judgment of righteousness – and that which I heard from that blessed voice that could be heard from inside it, I have written for you in this letter, my beloved brother.

Excerpted from Selected Prose Works of St. Ephrem of Syria by E. G. Mathews and J. P. Amar.

The photo shows an icon of St. Ephrem from the 15th-16th centuries, and found in the Dormition Cathedral in the Krtemlin.

Prayer As Erotic Language

The very heart of true prayer is desire, love. In the language of the Fathers this desire is called eros. Modern usage has corrupted the meaning of “erotic” to only mean sexual desire – but it is a profound word, without substitute in the language of the Church.

I offer a quote from Dr. Timothy Patitsas of Holy Cross in Brookline:

By eros we mean the love that makes us forget ourselves entirely and run towards the other without any regard for ourselves. Allan Bloom described eros as “love’s mad self-forgetting.” (from Road to Emmaus, Vol. XV, No. 2, Spring, 2014). 

Patitsas, in the same interview, offers this observation on St. Maximus’ thought:

St. Maximus says that God was so good that His goodness could not be contained within Himself. It poured forth “outside” Himself in a cosmic Theophany over against the face of darkness [nothingness]. The appearing of this ultimate Beauty caused non-being itself to forget itself, to renounce itself, to leave behind its own “self” – non-being – and come to be. All of creation is thus marked by this eros, this movement of doxology, liturgy, love, and repentance out of chaos and into the light of existence. Creation is repenting from its first moment, for repentance does not require the perquisite of sin. It simply means to put our attention still more deeply upon Christ to love Him much, much more than we have before. Of course, compared to that “more deeply,” the prior state looks like sin – but this is partly relative for us.

This is a profound summary of the work of creation, particularly in its use of Maximus’ imagery and thought. But this account of creation , almost scandalous in its “erotic” content, goes to the heart of worship, prayer and repentance. The language of prayer in Orthodoxy is frequently deeply “penitential” and filled with extreme expressions. We describe ourselves as the “worst of sinners,” etc. St. Basil’s language is typical:

Although I have completely subjected myself to sin and am unworthy of heaven, of earth and of this passing life, even though I am a slave to delights and have disgraced Your image, yet I still do not lose hope in salvation, wretched as I am, for You have made and fashioned me. I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You…

We pray with such extreme language, reflecting not a vision of legal condemnation: rather, it is the recognition of Beauty itself, in Whose Presence we appear broken, soiled, with nothing to recommend us. It is the language of repentance – but not of morbid self-hatred. It is the language of self-forgetting of leaving the self behind, of finding nothing within the self to cling to.

There is another word for this self-forgetting: ecstasy. Again, this word has been abused in modern language and now means an extreme emotional state. But its Greek root means to “stand outside of oneself.” Thus the Fathers will speak of God’s ecstasy – His going forth to us. But there is also our ecstasy, as we forget ourselves and rush towards Him.

It could be argued that the language of self-deprecation in liturgical prayers is very much a “remembering” and “dwelling” on the self. Within a legal metaphor this might be quite true. But we must listen to the whole of the prayers.

O Lord, I know that my transgressions have mounted higher than my head, but the greatness of Your compassion is incomparable and the mercy of Your bounty is indescribable and free of malice. There is no sin which surpasses Your love for mankind. Therefore, wondrous King and all gracious Lord, show Your wondrous mercy to me a sinner; show me the power of Your goodness; show me the strength of Your long-suffering mercy, and receive me a sinner as I turn to You. (St. Simeon the Translator)

We see that our sins have driven us back towards non-being and nothingness. But God in His great mercy continues to call us into existence and to raise us up from the emptiness of our sin. 

I want to say a few words about evil and non-being. Non-being is not evil. It is not anything. We cannot say it is good nor can we say it is neutral. It is nothing. The Fathers recognized a trinity of existence: Being, Well-Being, Eternal Being. They also recognized another trinity: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. 

It is the teaching of the Fathers that being, existence, is inherently good. It is the gift of the good God, who alone has true Being (“Being Beyond All Being”). But we are created with a direction or movement (kinesis). That movement is from being towards well-being and eternal being. Eternal Being is true union with Christ (theosis). 

Our call into existence is brought forth as we behold the Beauty of God. Drawn towards Him, we see that He is not only Beautiful, but that He is loving, self-emptying for the sake of all – that is – we see that He is Good. As we pursue His Goodness we move ever towards our End in Christ who is the Truth. 

I have taken a few moments to set these things in their proper perspective and order because we use these words casually, without care for their proper meaning. Only in this context do we understand sin as an “ontological” problem (having to do with being).

Sin is a movement away from being, well-being, and eternal being. It is a distorted direction (hamartia: “missing the mark”). It is equally the refusal of Beauty and Goodness, without participation in the Truth. 

I will try to put this into practical terms. A man sees someone else in genuine need and has plenty to spare. But he considers the matter and turns away. He has “increased” or “preserved” his wealth, but he has impoverished his soul, diminished his own existence since his existence depends utterly on his movement towards well-being and eternal-being. This he could pursue by following the commandments and the example of Christ (which is already the movement of grace within him). Christ’s self-emptying towards all of creation is the perfection of generosity. To act on generosity is union with Christ, a movement towards well-being. 

When someone asks: “Is it a sin to withhold help from someone in need?” The answer is yes – but not in a merely legal sense. It is a sin – a movement towards non-existence – a movement away from the proper direction of our lives.

And it is from the depths of our non-existence that we cry out to God for mercy. Seeing His Beauty we forget ourselves (and our money, etc.) and we call out to the One who has called out to us. In our longing for His Beauty we love Him and are drawn to His Goodness. We give to the one who has need: “my brother is my life.” 

I would add, in light of an earlier comment, that this forgetting of ourselves in the face of His beauty is true shame (not the toxic form). It is the confessing of our emptiness, our non-existence, in the face of true existence (which is Beautiful). Such a pure-hearted confession is ecstatic, a movement out of the self towards the Other. 

I will also add as an aside that all of this should shed much light on the importance of beauty in Orthodox liturgy and Churches, iconography, etc. It is essential – not a decoration or an afterthought. Much of the modern world sees beauty as a luxury (which it so rarely affords). I grieve deeply when I hear the modern sentiment directed towards a beautiful Church “that money should have been given to the poor.” These are the words of Judas. And those who say such things rarely give anything themselves. Beauty is not a contradiction of generosity. The movement towards Beauty is a movement towards Goodness (which contains generosity at its core). 

The apprehension of Beauty is at the very heart of the preaching of the gospel. It is that which first touches the heart and draws us towards Truth. In our over-rationalized world we tend to think that it is reasoning and arguments that draw people to Christ. But this is something that comes much later. First the heart must be drawn – and this happens primarily through Beauty in its broadest sense. Many things serve this role.

For C.S.Lewis it was a picture in a book of Norse Mythology and the line, “Balder the Beautiful is Dead.” Mysteriously, it pierced his young heart and remained with him until he much later perceived Christ. I have always treasured Muggeridge’s book on Mother Teresa titled, Something Beautiful for God. If you cannot share the beauty of the gospel, then you have likely not understood it and clearly lack the requisite gifts as of yet. This is why St. Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.”

These are the thoughts of the Fathers, and the doorways into greater perception of the mystery of the gospel. It is the absence of such depth that reveals the poverty of legal imagery – as well as its lack of beauty. 

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “A Woman Praying,” by John Phillip, painted ca. 1860s.