The Question Of Sin

Have you ever thought what the world would be like if sin were absent? No armies, no wars, no police, no courts, no jails, no locks, no passwords, no scams, no weapons. Life would be Absolute Bliss.

The Apostle John speaks here about the age-old problem of sin. In these few verses John mentions the word, sin nine times. Why? Because it’s such a problem and it’s something that affects every person. It affects us in such a way which is detrimental to our well-being.

By speaking of sin nine times John is highlighting the fact that we cannot brush it under the carpet as if it doesn’t really matter. He brings it out into the open by talking about it.

We all live in a world where every living creature has an enemy. A caterpillar must watch out for the birds; the frog has to watch out for the snake, the antelope must watch out for the lion. The tuna has to watch for the shark.

What about people? People have any enemy as well. The enemy is real, it’s not imagined. It’s like a virus which affects everyone; and the enemy is called Sin.

As John highlights public enemy number 1; he also introduces the theme of saying and doing. A person’s Christian life is to amount to more than mere talk; we must also walk the walk, living out what we believe.

If we are in fellowship with God, if we are walking in the light, our lives will back up what our lips are saying. But if we are living in sin, walking in darkness, then our lives will contradict what our lips are saying, making us hypocrites.

The Bible calls the Christian life a walk. This walk begins with a step of faith when we trust Christ as our Saviour. But salvation is not the end it is only the beginning of a spiritual walk. Walking involves progress, and Christians are supposed to advance in the spiritual life.

Just as a child must learn to walk and must overcome many difficulties in doing so, a Christian must learn to walk in the light. God’s light. But the fundamental difficulty is the matter of, you’ve guessed it, sin.

Sin, tries to stop completely, or interrupts our walk with God. Our sin causes us to stumble and fall and sometimes not get up at all.

Of course, sin is not simply outward disobedience, sin is also inner rebellion or desire. In the second chapter of this letter we are warned about 3 things. The desires of the flesh; desires of the eyes, and about the pride of life, all of which are sinful. Sin is also the breaking of God’s law and refusal to submit to the law of God. Living in independence of God’s law is the very essence of sin.

Suzannah Wesley was the mother of John and Charles Wesley and she had 17 other children. She herself came from a family of 29. She had a huge impact on the lives of both John and Charles.

One day as a young man, John asked his mother this question; he asked her; ‘can you give me a definition of sin’? Not many children ask their parents that.

This was her answer; ‘whatever weakens your reasoning; impairs the tenderness of your conscience; obscures your sense of God, takes away your relish for spiritual things; or increases the power of flesh over the spirit; that becomes sin’. Fairly comprehensive. There is no better definition I know. If we only ever pinpoint sin; I don’t commit adultery so I’m OK; or I don’t steal so I’m OK; I’m not a jealous person so I’m OK; I don’t gossip so I’m OK. Then we become Pharisaic in our outlook.

But when we look at the big picture of how we live out our lives like Suzannah Wesley did it leaves no wriggle room. Our problem today is that we have lost the ability to define things for what they are and what they were. There are now in Western Society very few absolutes in a world instead defined by relativism. But the bible speaks of absolutes and always has. There is a clash then with what the bible says and what the world wants and desires.

Governments and people deal with issues today without any idea of definition. Because concerning the definition of a moral issue you have to draw on something or somebody from which to give you the moral compass you need.

You cannot just decide to make up a moral code, which of course is what is happening today. Today there are very few things that are labelled wrong or bad. Society today is re defining what sin is. It is being made up as it goes along and it’s a road that leads to disaster. One of the things I love about the bible is that it tells us the way it is. It doesn’t conceal bad behaviour even by the saints.

The mighty Abraham the friend of God, who had great faith; became weak in his faith when he went down to Egypt and told a series of lies to the pagan Pharaoh that his wife Sarah, was his sister. And then foolishly through his impatience married the slave Hagar in order to have a child from her. In both cases God forgave Abraham his sin, but Abraham had to reap what he sowed.

God will remove our sins, we know this because of what Jesus did, but he does NOT change the result, as many of us I’m sure can testify. No one can unscramble an egg. Moses killed an Egyptian soldier in a fit of rage; and then had to live many years of his life on the run. God forgave him his sin, but he still lived in fear. You can easily trace King David’s gradual downfall from when he had his illicit affair with Bathsheba who was married to another man. God forgave him, but his family soon after started to disintegrate. The kingdom started to break up.

The fact that Christian’s sin bothers a lot of people. They forget the fact that their receiving the new nature does not eliminate the old nature they were born with. The old nature which originates in us, beginning inside our mother’s womb fights against the new spiritual nature, which we receive once we trust in Jesus.

No amount of self-discipline, no amount of man-made rules, and no amount of self-help programmes can control this old nature. It holds to us like a limpet on a rock. Only God’s Holy Spirit can enable us to put to death the old nature and produce the Spirit’s fruit in us through the new nature.

Sinning Christians like Peter, woman at the well, Moses, Abraham, David, Sarah, Jacob, are not mentioned in the Bible to discourage us, but to warn us.

Why do you keep preaching to us Christians, about sin, an angry church member said to the minister? After all, sin in the life of a Christian is different from sin in the life of an unsaved person. Yes, indeed said the minister, it is different it’s much worse. All of us therefore, must deal with our sins if we are to enjoy the life that is real. And how do we do that you may say?

Well. we do a couple of things. One is we can decide to cover our sins. Mark Twain said; ‘we are all like the moon. We all have a dark side, we want no one else to see’. The trouble with little sins is that they don’t stay little. Light produces life and growth and beauty, but sin is darkness; and darkness and light cannot exist in the same place. If we are walking in the light, the darkness has to go. If we are holding to sin, then the light goes. That is the reality.

How do Christians try to cover up their sins; the answer is by telling lies. We want our Christian friends to think we are spiritual people so we lie about our lives and try to make a favourable impression on them. We want them to think that we are walking in the light, though in reality that is not the case.

Once a person begins to lie to others, they will sooner or later start to lie to themselves and verse 8 deals with this. The problem now is not deceiving others, but deceiving ourselves.

The scary thing is that it is possible for a believer to live in sin, yet convince himself or herself that everything is fine in their relationship with God. The classic example is of King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba where he foolishly thought everything was fine with God and with life afterwards. He would continue on tending his royal vineyards as if nothing much had happened. You can read about that in the book of Second Samuel.

God cannot be mocked. But the spiritual decline becomes still worse. The next step is trying to LIE to God verse 10. We have made ourselves liars; now we try to make God a liar. We contradict his word, which says, ‘that all have sinned’; and yet we maintain that we are the exceptions to the rule. We apply God’s word to others but not to ourselves. We believe the message is for someone else in the pew behind us, not ourselves. Many who lean strongly to the left in politics hold to this view.

The whole process starts out with the believer telling lies and ends up with them becoming a confirmed liar. It begins as a role they play; then it becomes a longer role and then, the very essence of their lives. Eventually their character becomes eroded. Sin is lethal. Even the smallest dose is lethal. What do we do? We can try to cover our sins or we can confess our sins.

God is light. He is pure, perfect and Holy. Therefore, it is impossible for him to close his eyes to even the smallest sin. That smallest sin has to be dealt with because it’s wrong and it offends God’s holiness. But God is love too. He wants to save sinners and fill them with his love and grace and truth. How then can a holy God uphold his own justice and still forgive sinners?

The answer is in the sacrifice of Christ. At the cross God in his holiness judged sin. But God in his love offers Jesus Christ to the world as a sacrifice to atone for our sin and become our Saviour.

God was just in that he punished sin, but he is also loving in that he offers forgiveness through what Jesus did at Calvary. Jesus finished his work on earth; the work of giving his life as a sacrifice for sin; that’s why He cried out from the cross; ‘it is finished’. But he has an Unfinished work in heaven. For he represents us before God’s throne.

As an Advocate he intercedes for us and helps us when we sin. When we confess our sins to God, because of what Jesus does for us in heaven, God forgives us. When we get to heaven we will need someone to speak up for us. Someone who is on our side. That’s what an advocate does. Because Christ our advocate lives for us at God’s right hand, he can apply his sacrifice to our need’s day by day, hour by hour.

This is where the Cross and Resurrection dovetail perfectly together. The cross is dead without the resurrection. The resurrection is meaningless without the cross. All he asks is that when we have failed, we do Not try to cover sin up. Instead in faith we confess our sins. To confess sin means much more than simply to admit them. To confess sin, means to say the same thing about it that God says about it.

Confessing is not simply praying a lovely wee prayer, or making pious excuses. True confession is naming sin; calling it by name for what it is. It’s simply being honest with ourselves, acknowledging that we are all steeped in sin from our birth and falling on God’s infinite mercy.

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, “Christ and the Adulteress Woman,” by Domenico Morelli, painted in 1969.

In Response To Psalm 50

Psalm 50:3: “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.”

 

September

Seven embers of thought enflamed,
a mind on fire, in a wooden frame.
That single wick of a candle, broken
into a shaft of smoke, crying
molten words unspoken.

The Ether

The ether,
suspended above the clouds
like a sunset whittled down
to its final shavings,
sucked up by the moon
into the vacuum of high noon,
where the echoes go on raving…
Raving…
Raving.

 

Airships

Blowing leaves,
motion without sound,
airships breaking heaven
where only silence is unbound.

 

Cosmin Dzurdzsa is the senior editor of The Post Millennial
The photo shows, “King David Playing the Harp,” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted in 1622.

Nahum The Carpenter, The Sixth Epistle

It is now over two years since Ezekiel left for Corinth. Ruth and Nahum have had several reports that he is healthy and doing very well in Greece. Ruth is hoping he would be home soon.

Ezra and Elizabeth have become a very popular couple in their community. They are invited to many social events and are often seen either walking hand in hand or riding on their horses. They make a very interesting couple as Ezra is quiet, and a little bit shy, however when he does speak people listen.

Elizabeth is out going and a confident conversationalist, they truly compliment each other.

Elizabeth has completed her medical training and even though she is very young she has quickly created a reputation of a caring, tender, compassionate and clever medical person. More than just a nurse!

People say that she has a special ability to diagnose your problem before she even examines you. People are coming from around the country to the hospital where she works and actually asking for her. Fortunately, the medical men in the clinic respect her abilities and often ask for her opinion as well. Ezra likes to tell her she has God-given abilities!!! She laughs him off.

Later that summer Ezra confided to his mother that he wanted to ask Elizabeth to marry him and how should he go about it??

This made Ruth smile, almost giggle! Ezra asked what is it? Oh Ezra she replied it brings back such fond memories of your dear sweet father and me!

He said, please tell me.

She began by saying that when they were children they went to the same school, although boys were in one room and girls in another. Your dad had to leave school when he was thirteen as his father needed him in his shop, after he quit school Nahum was almost never seen, he worked all day in the shop and then went home helped his mother and went to bed. His father was not a well man.

One day I asked a friend of Nahum’s to come to his shop with me. We were now about 15 or 16, Ezra was shocked to see us, but so proud to show us his father’s shop and the work they did. We were impressed. We invited Ezra to join a group of friends who met on Friday nights, we usually had a fire, some food and maybe, if we could get it a wee bit of wine. We always had a good time. He agreed to come.

One cold, rainy Friday night some months later he showed up with a parcel in his hands. He chatted with his friends and then when he saw me alone he came over and in his shy manner he said, I made you a gift, if you don’t like it, it is ok. He surely lacked confidence!

He gave me the package and when I opened it he had made me a leather broach, four different coloured leaves with a black dot in the middle! It was beautiful and I still have it!!! With tears in my eyes, I said Nahum this is beautiful I would never ever give it back; I leaned over and gave him a kiss on his cheek. It was the beginning.

After this we started seeing each other whenever we could and we had become good friends. About two years later I said to him did you ever think about getting married. He jumped up and said for sure! When would you like to do it?? I said hold on, I did not say I wanted to get married, I was just asking.

We talked some more and I explained what I knew about getting married. In the new Christian Church you had to have a priest, minister or disciples marry you, it was law. Also it was proper for the man to ask the girl’s parents for permission to marry their daughter.

This information set him back a bit, but I could sense from his manner and actions that there was a determination behind that shyness.

One evening when he knew I was out, he came over to my house.  I had told my parents he might be coming over one of these days so please welcome him, so they were prepared.

The poor guy came in and my parents greeted him warmly, suspecting what he wanted. They gave him a mug of wine. When they realized he was struggling they tried to help him and asked if there was something he wanted to say? He stuttered and stammered and said no, no,  I better be going.

My mother went over to him and said, come sit down beside me and have another mug of wine. She comforted him and after a while he blurted out that he loved their daughter, he thought she was the loveliest, smartest and most special girl in the whole world and he wanted her to be his wife. My mother and father hugged him and amid tears they said they would love to welcome Nahum into our family.

We were married a few months later and we have been so happy for over 23 years.

My mom said, oh Ezra, I am so sorry, I got carried away there!  I said mom, that is a beautiful story and it makes so much sense,   dad is still the same person today, Thank you for sharing.

My mom then told me to go see Mr. Goldman, the jeweler, and ask him to make a gold ring. She suggested that I try and put my little finger near Elizabeth’s ring finger (without her noticing) so I could tell Mr. Goldman the approximate size. She said I should speak with Elizabeth’s parents and ask them if I could marry their daughter. Then propose to Elizabeth.

Although shy like his father, he had no problem speaking to Elizabeth’s parents seeking their permission. They, like Ruth’s parents over 23 years ago said they would love to have Ezra as a son in law.

A few days later Elizabeth accepted his proposal but said she would like to wait until their wedding to wear his ring, but she did love it. Ezra understood.

They decided to wait to get married until Ezekiel returned. Fortunately the wait was not long, as a few months later he returned with six fellow disciples so the marriage took place with Ezekiel assisting and Isaac performing the wedding ceremony.

Hananiah and Juthine agreed to have the ceremony and reception at their farm. It was a beautiful day and the charming young couple was pleased that so many of their friends and relatives attended.After a short trip to a country home for a few days the young couple returned home and set up their new apartment in a friends large home about two miles outside of town.

It was a very pleasant cozy home, but the distance meant they usually rode their horses to work and into the city.They were both establishing their positions in life. Ezra was gradually taking over Nahum’s shop and making favourable changes and improvements resulting in more business and more income.

Elizabeth was continuing to grow her reputation as a healer of the sick. She now had started using new methods, new herbs and new remedies to treat the ill. People appreciated her compassionate manner too.

Nahum the Carpenter should now be called Nahum and Son, but they never got around to changing the name. Ezra was continuing to grow the business.One day he was working outside when two boys, Samuel and Ethan, who he had seen at some of the Christian services were walking by bare foot. He called to them and asked where are your sandals?  They smiled and said we don’t have any! He asked where are you going. They replied they were just out for a walk, nothing else to do.

Ezra called them over to his shop and asked if they would like to help him. They jumped at the opportunity. He told them to sweep the shop, smooth the sand at the entrance way and put the garbage in the cart and to sort the pile of leather, stacking it by size. It took them a few hours and when they finished he gave them each a pair of sandals.

They were so excited to receive such a gift for so little work. He asked them where they lived and they explained they lived with their mom in a small apartment nearby. Their mom worked as a servant for a wealthy family. They had no money, but mom was able to bring home food every day so they were well fed. They were both still going to school. His father had died when they were young.

Ezra asked them if they would like to come by every other day and help him, they happily agreed. This was the beginning of a lasting relationship.

As Ezra and Elizabeth were beginning their lives, another couple was at the other end of the spectrum. They were elderly, lived on a small farm on the outskirts of town. They were now unable to work their farm and had hired a young neighbour boy to look after their small herd of sheep and flock of chickens.

Their names were Yohanan and Mariamme. The farm had been in Mariamme’s family for generations and it was expected it would be handed down to her heirs too. Unfortunately Mariamme had two miscarriages, the second one resulting in her being unable to bear children.

The couple was very bitter about this situation and was angry with God for his lack of love shown to them.

Several months ago they reluctantly came to a Christian service where they met Isaac and listened to his teachings of this man Jesus and became members of his church.

Having seen them a few times at the services, Isaac and Nahum asked if they could visit them. The old couple welcomed them warmly into their home a few days later.

Nahum and Isaac told them they understood their anger. They also explained that this man Jesus told them to believe in him and to put their trust in him and they would find peace and love. They also told them that they believed God had a plan for everyone and maybe someday they would understand why they were childless.

Following a very enjoyable evening both Nahum and Isaac complimented the couple on the size and majesty of their home and expressed their admiration for it. Mairiamme told them her grandfather had built it for his own family and also added a small apartment on the rear of the home so his eldest son and his wife could remain at home and help run the farm.

Since they had no children, Yohanan and Miriamme lived only in the main part of the house, the apartment was used for storage.

When they left, Isaac and Nahum were pleased that their visit was able to add some comfort and hope for this very nice couple.

Time would prove them correct.

 

John Thomas Percival continues working with wood and pondering about the early history of Christianity.

 

The photo shows, “Jesus Ministered to by Angels,” by James Tissot, painted 1866-1894.

Nietzsche’s Parable

“Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Luke 21:33). That be far from Thee to do in this manner — to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)

“In some remote corner of the sprawling universe, twinkling among the countless solar systems, there was once a star on which some clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant, most mendacious minute in world history, but it was only a minute. After nature caught its breath a little, the star froze, and the clever animals had to die. And it was time, too: for although they boasted of how much they had come to know, in the end they realized they had gotten it all wrong. They died and in dying cursed truth. Such was the species of doubting animal that had invented knowledge.” 

Thus spake Nietzsche in his work, On the Pathos of Truth.  But what is the point of the mad man’s parable? 

It is an elegantly savage assault on the power of truth. What good is truth in the face of uncontrollable catastrophe, or the knowledge of inevitable disaster? 

And where on earth is progress in all of this? Can a human being truly believe in progress and reconcile it with the annihilation of the human race, or the unavoidable holocausts to come 

How many setbacks will it take before we abandon our belief in progress? Here Nietzsche is not just attacking the progress-believing Liberals of his day, but Christians as well.  

The Christian believes that truth will conquer all and that the light of the world will snuff out the darkness. Therefore, when Nietzsche questions the power of truth, he questions the all-powerful nature of God himself.  

Can the progressive and the Christian survive these indictments against their central dogma, their seemingly unmovable belief that life will find a way? 

The Christian will be quick to say that Life shall never cease even after death. They preach of the resurrection and the world to come, but what does that even mean? Against the barrage of rationality and skepticism, the Christian is struck dumb.

And the progressive’s response? Speechless.  

But, maybe there is hope after annihilation. After the nuclear flash fades away, and we return onto the dust from whence we came, will not life find a way? 

If it started once, who’s to say it won’t start again? After all, does not all chaos collapse into order in time? Can’t new covenants be made between new life and the logic of this world? Is there not a life after death?

And after new microbes come into being, won’t they evolve too? There is no doubt in my mind that they won’t learn all the tricks of life; how to create, how to destroy, how to sacrifice themselves for one another 

In time, maybe they too, like all new life, will start to crawl around and grow. Will not life rise again? 

Every Christian knows that life can scratch out an existence in even the most extreme conditions; whether it’s at the bottom of the sea or from the bottom of our hearts.

But can we call the force of life’s persistence through the universe? What is the Logos behind all things that are sustainable, harmonic, and dare I say everlasting? Is this God’s love, or even love itself? What’s the difference?

And if the universe itself is destroyed, who’s to say that it won’t start again too, like it had once before?  

Maybe next time we’ll get it right and realize that our love of life, as broken as it may be, is the only force keeping us around.

And I mean love, not truth (in so much as they can be separated). After all Nietzsche (immediately after reciting his parable) goes on to say that “this would be man’s fate were he nothing more than a thinking animal; truth would drive him to despair and annihilation, truth eternally damned to be untruth.”

 

The photo shows, “The Sick Child,” by Edvard Munch, painted in 1896.

Orthodox Christianity: A Faith For Our Times

In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life. These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day.

The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism. This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday. Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.

That man, Kyriacos Markides, is a Greek Cypriot, whose education and academic career (in sociology) were centered in America. As he describes, until the writing of this book his spiritual life had gradually moved from stock Western academic agnosticism to an interest in various forms of mysticism, ending up, at the conclusion of this book, in an ambiguous, but very favorably disposed, relationship with Orthodoxy.

Markides also wrote an earlier book, Riding with the Lion, about the Orthodox monastic communities on Mount Athos, in Greece. Confusingly, this book, whose title refers to Mount Athos, takes places nearly exclusively on Cyprus. Regardless, the form of this book is essentially narrated dialogues between Markides and an Orthodox monk, here called “Father Maximos,” who was sent to Cyprus from Mount Athos in 1993 to form a new monastery (and who is now Bishop of Limassol, the second-largest city in Cyprus).

Other people and places appear, and there are travelogue aspects and digressions about the politics of Cyprus, but the core of the book is an ongoing conversation between those two men. The goal of these dialogues is to primarily to narrate and explicate Orthodox spirituality, with heavy emphasis on its mystical aspects.

Through his dialogues with Father Maximos, Markides develops several threads of Orthodox spiritual thought, on their own terms, in relation to Western Christian (that is, for all practical purposes, Roman Catholic) thought, and, to a lesser extent, in relation to non-Christian spirituality and even secular psychology. (Though accurate here, I hesitate to use the term “spiritual,” because it smacks of the odious phrase “spiritual but not religious,” which is code for “stupid”).

The reason that Markides was able to open his mind to Orthodoxy was his prior realization that “materialist superstition had kept Western thought stranded and imprisoned for the last three hundred years”—a realization, though only nascent, that the Enlightenment was far from the unalloyed benefit it is often portrayed. That realization is what makes this book possible; it is neither Orthodox fanboy-ism, or a cloaked attack by a skeptic, but an honest attempt to find the truth.

A substantial part of Markides’s approach is that he identifies up front, and then directly asks Father Maximos to address, problems and questions that are commonly raised in objection to Orthodox or Christian beliefs.

These include questions with a practical basis, such as whether monks are wasting their lives, or are self-centered or inward focused when they should be serving their fellow man, or whether abbots psychologically coerce vulnerable individuals to join the monastic life. It’s these questions, in fact, that Markides addresses first.

Then he turns to questions about belief, both theology and practice, including ones often asked by Protestants, such as whether icons are idols (that one is easy, but many aren’t). This segues into broader theological questions—ultimately, into the meaning of life. All this is done in dialogue; the author taped his conversations, so presumably they are accurately set forth.

The focus here is on monastic practice, but that is portrayed as merely a more perfect form of the practice to which all Christians are called. While Maximos’s explanations of the reasons for, and the value of, monasticism are best read in their entirety, they revolve around the necessity of some set of people’s “providentially assigned life’s task” to be an “exclusive preoccupation with the reality of God.”

It is apprehending and approaching that reality towards which monastic life in Orthodoxy is oriented. Such monastic life is eremitic, more so than communal (though some meals and some worship are typically communal), in the spirit of the early monastics, and is not directed toward external acts of service in the way of some Western monastics.

The vast majority of the monk’s day is devoted simply to prayer, especially the Efche (the “Jesus Prayer”), often (but not necessarily) along with some manual labor. Fasting and other forms of periodic self-denial are also important in creating the necessary focus.

Collectively, these practices are askesis, the root word of “ascetic,” but here it means spiritual athleticism, not (just) suffering through self-mortification. The repeated message is that such practices, applied to a lesser degree, are the path to holiness and union with God for all people.

In Markides’s telling (I cannot opine myself), Orthodox spirituality does not rely on strict rationality and logic nearly to the degree that Western Christianity does. Thomism, scholasticism and the like, tied to Aristotle, is not so much denigrated as regarded as incomplete (although Father Maximos comes very close to rejecting metaphysics entirely).

The ability of certain saintly men and women to directly apprehend the divine, and thereby to benefit and illuminate others, is prized and assumed much more than it would be in Catholicism, where the structures permit and recognize it, but usually not without hesitation.

This shows up most clearly in the nearly continuous references by Father Maximos to Elder Paisios, an Athonite monk and wonderworker who died in 1993. But signs and wonders, including such dramatic events as the physical appearance of Christ Himself to individual monks, as well as the appearance of saints in the flesh, and direct physical contact with demons and angels, are held as normal, or at least not infrequent, events in Orthodox monasticism, which (again, in Markides’s telling) has not been infected with Western materialism and skepticism. Markides himself does show some skepticism about the frequency of reported miracles, including querying whether they might be explained by science or hallucinations, but by no means wholesale skepticism.

It’s not just materialism and skepticism that can undermine askesis, though, but also an over-exaltation of knowledge itself. As Father Maximos says, “Spiritual knowledge by itself does not lead us to God. It may in fact push us in the opposite direction.

We may succumb to the temptation and fantasize that because we are knowledgeable we are especially favored by God. It could stimulate our pride and vanity.” Speaking from experience, I agree with this—not that I have all that much spiritual knowledge, but I am keenly interested in theology, and too proud of the many books I have on it (though, even worse, part of my pride is in impressing visitors with my books—bad me).

Still, as I discuss below, and as Markides also seems to feel, despite the potential pitfalls, I don’t think metaphysics or other forms of rational spiritual knowledge should be denigrated excessively, especially as they relate to society overall.

This all fits within the overriding theme that runs through all Markides’s discussions with Father Maximos, which is theosis—the Orthodox belief that not only is our purpose and goal union with God, but that goal can be approached in this life, and that through it, in this life or the next, the believer can directly partake of the divine, in a form of ecstatic communion.

This state is reached not through study, or logical deduction, but by spiritual exercise devoted to reaching total humility and indifference to material things, while also being totally open to God. To reach theosis, both askesis and spiritual guidance are necessary, obtained from the lives of the saints and (ideally) from an elder. (Implicit in this is that self-guidance by reading the Bible in isolation to reach one’s own conclusions, the hallmark of Protestantism, is inadequate and foolish).

Theosis is a superseding goal—as Maximos says, “Christ didn’t come into the world to teach us how to become good fellows, how to behave properly, or how to live a righteous life in this world.” It’s not that those things are bad; rather it is that “the ultimate goal is to become perfect in the same way as our Heavenly Father is perfect, to become one with God.”

Several subthemes also show up repeatedly. One is the importance of overcoming temptations—not merely temptations as traditionally viewed in the West, where we picture Satan on our shoulder, but various troubles and difficulties, as well as good things that may happen, all of which are opportunities for spiritual development requiring an appropriate response.

An important category of these is logismoi, assaultive thoughts, defense against which is a matter discussed at considerable length in this book, with successful defense being a critical step in spiritual development, the defense resulting from repentance and humility. Another is the importance not only of personal humility, but of actively seeing the image of God in every other human being, no matter how evil he may act, and of loving that person as a consequence—and even loving demons (“as suffering entities,” despite their evil).

A third is that freedom does not consist in following one’s own desires, but being liberated from slavery to passions, and instead subordinating oneself to Christ. This is, of course, the only concept of freedom held in the West prior to the Enlightenment (not always with reference to Christ, naturally, since the ancient Greeks held it), but it has been mostly forgotten in the West, except, it seems, by antiquarians (though my guess is that its time is coming around again). None of these themes is exclusive to Orthodoxy, of course, but the emphasis on them seems much greater than in Western Christianity, or at least modern Western Christianity, of any brand.

It is important to note that in many cases, the Orthodox do not necessarily hold theological positions on which a final position has been reached, both because there is no single authority (other than a council and the approval of the laity) that can finally decide a matter, and because reaching a final decision is regarded as less important than in Catholicism, within certain basic parameters.

That said, three theological discussions in this book held special interest for me. The first is the possibility admitted in Orthodoxy, but almost totally denied in Catholicism, of the apocatastasis—the universal reconciliation, in which all humans, or even all created beings, including the Devil, will reach theosis. The Orthodox reject Purgatory, but a mainstream thread of Orthodox thought functionally treats Hell as Purgatory.

Markides focuses on it, but it’s hard for me to tell how prominent this line of thought is in Orthodoxy. It’s a lot more prominent than in the Roman Church, though, which mostly rejects it as heresy, although if pressed, some theologians (Hans Urs von Balthasar being the most notable modern example) will admit the possibility.

A second is the idea that the point of Christianity is not to improve this world. Father Maximos has never heard of “liberation theology” (monks are deliberately not up on the news). If he had heard of it, he would be revolted. As Father Maximos tells Markides, “[Christ] was not trying to make this world better and more just. Whatever Christ offered us through the Gospel had a deeper meaning, the salvation of humanity, our eternal restoration within the Kingdom of God.” No doubt, “Christ did go about doing good. . . . But that was not His chief mission for coming into the world.”

In the modern world, for the majority of Western Christians, this is the grossest heresy, or would be, if they knew what a heresy was. Certainly, the Presbyterian church my wife and I recently abandoned saw this as their only goal—implementing a left-wing vision of justice, cribbed from Rawls, not Romans.

In the words of that church’s new pastor, in the last sermon we heard before our family vomited him and his works out of our mouth, we are required to show that we are Christian to others, and our sole purpose in so doing is to aggressively demonstrate to non-Christians that we “reject theologies of hatred and exclusion”—that is, our chief goal as “Christians” must be to demonstrate our rejection of any form of traditional Christianity. So long, sucker. (I suppose my attitude here towards the pastor shows I am not making much progress on the path to theosis, though).

A third is the question of whether God wills a reason for all happenings. This seems to me clearly false; I agree strongly with the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, who in his meditation on the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, concluded that “God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark [a reference to a passage from Dostoevsky] were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ ”

But Father Maximos is just as emphatic that “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in the Universe without a deeper meaning to it.” I don’t buy it. I could harmonize Hart’s and Father Maximos’s statements, since “deeper meaning” is not the exact same thing as “willed reason,” but I think it would be sophistry—Hart’s and Father Maximos’s seem to be actually opposed opinions, and I am not sure which is closer to the Orthodox mainstream.

Regardless, I just can’t stand it when people say “I believe everything happens for a reason.” (It’s especially annoying when said by people who don’t believe in God at all, though. What reason is that then, exactly)? It doesn’t; much of history is false and damnable. This is also part of why theodicy has never seemed like a significant problem to me. God doesn’t owe us anything, and much less does he owe us current happiness. That’s easy for me to say, blessed beyond all words and measure. But it still seems obvious to me.

Anyway, on a more abstract level, and given that much of my thinking nowadays revolves around how, perhaps, the West can be dragged out of its dead end and return to flourishing, and that part of that flourishing relates to purely secular matters, I find the relative approaches of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity illuminating in relation to that goal.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the West, rather than the East, created the modern world. By “modern world,” I mean the approach to thinking, and thus to science, that ended in the Scientific Revolution and therefore the Industrial Revolution (to neither of which, of course, the Enlightenment had any relevance at all, so we can peel away the Enlightenment and return to continued material flourishing, or at least that’s my theory).

Certainly, the Roman East had less opportunity—under siege from Islam (which itself could never have created the modern world), not to mention it was abused at times by the West (the Orthodox remember the Fourth Crusade, forgotten in the West). But the mystical, otherworldly focus that, at least in this book, strongly characterizes Orthodoxy, and the related downplaying of high rationality and metaphysics, seems to me inherently likely to pinch material advancement.

The Western approach has its pitfalls, obviously, among them those outlined by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation. I also often wonder if a truly wealthy society can be a virtuous society at all.

Not to mention that many aspects of modern science can be, and are being, used for utterly pernicious purposes, such as transhumanism and better ways of killing infants in the womb, so sometimes I wonder if we’d not all be better off, in the long run, living in the fourth century A.D.

In any case, it seems to me that Markides’s analogy of Orthodoxy and Western Christianity as “two lungs,” both contributing air and life, is a good one, and one that might conduce to a real renaissance in both West and East. And, despite Orthodox resentment against and distaste for the Roman Church, a rapprochement among traditional Catholics and the Orthodox is probably a necessary element to fight the forces that would destroy both, so some form of joint action would have both spiritual and secular benefits.

Finally, at the risk of seeming like a curmudgeon, I note (as I often do) that the book isn’t perfect. As probably in any book by a sociologist who likes to deal with shamans, there are irritating parts and odd claims about non-religious matters.

The frequent side references to the “eco-peace villages” that Markides’s wife apparently was devoted to, whatever those are, grate (mostly because they sound nonsensical).

Markides treats it as something other than ludicrous when someone asks him what penance the monks have done for “having killed millions of women as witches.” You just have to glide over those sections, though, and focus on the words of Father Maximos, to really receive benefit. I suggest you do that, today.

Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “In Russia, Soul of the People,” by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov. This was one of the last religious paintings by Nesterov before the Revolution of 1917.

Where Does Morality Come From?

Where does morality come from? Does it derive from religion? In essence, there are two views in terms of Christian morality, namely, the Divine Command, and Natural Law.

When we reduce the basic tenets of morality hinged upon Divine Command, we derive the following hypotheses: That which is morally right is commanded by God; and that which is morally wrong is forbidden by God. In effect, moral conduct is right because God commands it.

Immediately, we perceive problems with morality based upon Divine Command. Firstly, agnostics and atheists would have no knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.

This in turn brings in Plato’s objection whether moral conduct is right when commanded by the gods, or do the gods command such conduct because it is intrinsically right. But what if God commanded us to murder constantly. Would this not render meaningless the very notion of God’s goodness?

Further, when we say that God commands moral conduct because it is, by its very nature, right – then we are implying that there is a standard of good and evil which is independent of God, or outside his command.

Therefore, if God commands us to do what is right we must face two implications of our actions:

  1. Our ensuing moral actions are right because God commands them, or
  2. God commands such actions because they are by their very nature right.

If we accept the first of these implications, then we must acknowledge that God’s commands are arbitrary, from a moral point of view, which in turn renders the idea of God’s goodness meaningless.

And if we accept the second implication, we inherently acknowledge that there is a standard of good and evil, right and wrong, which is entirely independent of God.

As a result of these two implications, we must either accept God’s commands as arbitrary, and abandon the doctrine of the goodness of God, or we must acknowledge that there is an independent standard of right and wrong, and thus we must forsake the notion of God as the arbiter of right and wrong, good and evil.

Of course, from a religious point of view, it would be impossible to perceive God’s command as arbitrary, and it would be equally impossible to forsake the idea of God’s intrinsic goodness. Consequently, an independent standard of good and evil, right and wrong must be acknowledged – which ultimately suggests that the theory of Divine Command is flawed.

The second view of Christian morality depends on the theory of Natural Law which, when summarized, suggests three assumptions. First, that everything in nature has a definite purpose.

Thus when we ask the question: “What is it for?” We can derive an immediate answer (for example, the sun shines to generate life). Second, that everything in nature has a purpose because that is the way God intended it to be; it is from this assumption that religion derives its reason for being. Third, that the laws of nature define how things ought to be.

Thus, what is right is that which is natural. That which is unnatural is wrong. For example, the philanthropic urge stems from mankind’s natural concern for the well being of others.

However, this third and final assumption also suggests that all that is unnatural is wrong and is the pursuit of the twisted. Such an argument can certainly be used to criticize homosexuality and masturbation, since it does not lead to the natural outcome of sex, namely, children.

However, as David Hume suggests, there is a marked difference between what is and what ought to be, and therefore, Natural Law theory confuses facts with values. In effect, nature does not seek to answer the question “Why?”

Thus, rain just falls and the sun just shines. In other words, the laws of nature are blind – their reason for being is not to serve the “higher” purpose of mankind’s needs. We cannot impose an anthropocentric view upon nature.

Further, Natural Law implies that moral judgment is dictated by reason. Therefore, both believers and non-believers have access to truth. Consequently, morality is independent of religion.

Certainly, it is difficult to agree with the theory of Natural Law, simply because it confuses two independent (and perhaps mutually exclusive) issues: namely, facts or mundane reality and morality.

We cannot imbue nature with our moral vision or values. Nature exists because it does. Nature does not exist to reify our moral values. Thus, in condemning that which is deemed “unnatural” Natural Law imposes a moral code that cannot exist independently in nature.

Nature, in and of itself, does not exist according to moral laws. If that were so, then predators would not kill and eat newborn fawns, nor ravens pluck chicks from nests.

Therefore we need to acknowledge that nature, morality/ethics, and religion are simply different areas that cannot impinge upon each other.

Morality and religion are not inherent in nature. In short, nature is neither moral nor religious.

Thus, we cannot impose laws on nature, and thereby use these imposed laws as moral codes to judge others as either deficient or satisfactory.

 

The photo shows, “Found,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, unfinished painting, ca. 1869.

Thomas More In His Utopia

Thomas More’s Utopia is a work that is a complex critique of sixteenth-century northern European society. This critique is accomplished by way of postulating various ideal conditions that exist on an imaginary island called Utopia, and then these conditions are contrasted with the conditions prevalent in the Europe of More’s day.

One of these ideal concepts that Utopia gives us is the description of how perfection has been achieved, namely, through the eradication of pride – the root of all evil in humankind.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Renaissance was coming into its own in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England (although it was waning in Italy), by way of humanist thinkers.

These northern humanists are sometimes called, “Christian humanists” in that they believed that it was a human being’s privilege to seek happiness in this life, and that this true happiness was based on reason; however this happiness was only truly attained by divine grace.

The northern Renaissance particularly focused on a program of practical reform in a wide range of areas, including religion, education, and government. But there was an inherent tension in this position, since often these humanist reformers were also members of the political establishment – in brief, most were courtiers.

The key ideology of the Renaissance was a conscious turning away from scholasticism and the espousal of particular models. But this turn to the Classics was not a rejection of Christianity; rather it was an attempt to find material with which to reinterpret the essential message of Christianity – the destruction of pride that leads to estrangement of man from God and man from man.

In fact, for the Christian humanists, pride was the root of all evil; it was the grand paradigm wherein the Fall of Man and his salvation could be explained.

Thus rhetoric (the study of communication and persuasion) was associated with eloquence – and to a humanist, eloquence presupposed a nobility in the communication of one’s ideas as well as wisdom, as eloquence was the outward sign of inner wisdom. Beauty was derived from the Classics and wisdom acquired from Christianity.

Therefore, for the humanists, reason was innate in man’s soul, and through reason man could free himself from the grosser bonds of pride and become a creature not far below God himself.

Of course, the program of reform was greatly enhanced by the availability of the printing press. Thus, Desiderius Erasmus wrote continually for the printing press, and the humanists were generally able to promulgate their ideas (and propaganda) more widely than had been previously possible. They also utilized Latin, which served as an international language of Europe. It is within this context of Renaissance humanism that More’s Utopia needs to be read.

The important theme within this context is the use of pride both as an example of what is to be avoided in order to arrive at the perfected state, and as a tool to critique the idea of society itself, which is built upon the largely evil manifestations of pride. More attempts to put his humanist vision within the parameters of practical application, by way of social critique.

In Utopia three characters converse: Thomas More appears as a fictionalized version of himself; Raphael Hythlodaeus is the fictional traveler to exotic worlds; and Peter Giles, More’s young friend from Antwerp, throws in an occasional word or two. The premise of the work seeks to dispense with the entire order based on private property, which is an extension of greed and rooted in civic pride.

More also takes the liberty to suppose a commonwealth based on the pessimism that there is a real need for secular government, which keeps fallen mankind from hurtling into the vortex of perpetual violence.

Of course, the prime source of violence among mankind is pride: sinful human beings have an insatiable desire for things, and this desire translates into pride when those that have more look down upon those who have less, social pride.

Thus we have in Utopia a play on how life might develop in a state that tries to balance human depravity of pride and a communal system that aims to check the destructive individualism of corrupt human nature.

Raphael entertains us by bringing our experience in the ordinary world up against an ideal that we cannot really reach, but one that has about it a certain plausibility. Utopia is a mirror held up to nature, and we see ourselves reflected in it.

The key question that Utopia asks concerns the relationship between our possessions and our souls. Are the conspicuous illusions of wealth (pride) a type of injustice? They are, according to Utopia: “In fact, when I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can’t, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society.”

If pride is measured by a sterile metal like gold, are the people who wear chains of gold not prisoners of their pride? And is it possible, in a zero sum world, where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, that the people who sport such finery are not in fact beggaring others? Thus the root of man’s injustice to man is pride, a conspiracy of those who seek to further their own egos.

If we measure worth by possession, are we not driven by a peculiar and implacable logic to put people to death for theft? More’s work raises this very fundamental question in regard to pride: what is it about possession that distorts vision and makes one person feel better than another?

The six-hour working day in Utopia also represents a perpetual check on an acquisitive society to turn human beings into beasts of burden to be worked as if they had no claim over themselves. For life is an end in and of itself, and not merely an instrument to be used for someone else’s gain.

Without pride, the force of such an imperative to use other people’s lives for personal gain is completely blunted. Thus for More, the root of human depravity is pride, and by eliminating private property, the root of civic and social pride is vanquished.

However, it is important to keep in mind that Utopia, from the beginning is an artificial construct. Some 1760 years earlier, Utopus had dug a channel to separate Utopia from the corrupting lands nearby. As the wise lawgiver, he imposed laws on people who could not or would not create those laws themselves.

But Utopia is afloat in world that is not Utopia: the fear of contamination is very much prevalent. Thus even if civic and social pride within is eliminated, it can still come from without.

This is why the Utopians give great weight to military matters, for a virtuous nation unarmed is quickly swallowed by the voraciousness of the outsider. Thus, there are massive walls around their towns on their island.

Since pride of possession has been vanquished, no locks bar Utopian doors, which open at a touch. The only reason Utopians can imagine the need for privacy is if they had pride: to guard what other do not have. Therefore, conformity is the rule of every house: “When you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all.”

Raphael believes societies other than Utopia are merely conspiracies of the rich. These societies are realms of greed and pride. And pride causes men to measure their welfare not by their well-being, but by having things that other lack, which is irrational and unchristian. Only in Utopia has pride and all its attendant vices been eviscerated from society.

It is because of this evisceration that Utopian polity rests upon common ownership. Through this idea, More could have it both ways: he could explore the implications of a communal way of living without necessarily proposing it, however much he may have felt emotionally or intellectually inclined towards it.

Raphael’s summation of the general advantage of the Utopian way of life betrays the reason for its attractiveness: although no man owns anything, all are rich – “for what can be richer than to live with a happy and tranquil mind, free from anxiety?”

In effect, the Utopians’ repudiation of private property is a remedy that frees them from pride and allows them to live a life that is at once religious and secular, private and public.

Consequently, their world consists of: equality of all things among citizens; love of peace and quiet; and contempt for gold and silver. In short, they have imported the ideals of the monastic life into political and social affairs.

A large part of Book 2, then, describes the happy place freed from the vices of the real world. But here we see that pride is also used to critique the Europe of More’s day. As happy as Utopia is, it is also “No place,” a land that will never be.

At one level, particularly with respect to geography, England and Utopia share a shadowy identity. Utopia is an island separated from the continent by a channel (Amaurotum), its capital city, together with the tidal river Anydrus, and the magnificently arched stone bridge across it, resemble London and the Thames, and the houses reflect those in England.

Thus it is not long before the Utopian illusion dissolves into the reality of England and Europe – places where pride certainly holds sway, and governs all aspects of civil, private, political, and social life.

The importance of pride comes through strongly in Raphael’s description of the Utopians distrust of treaties. In fact, the Utopians never make treaties with any nation, because “in those parts of the world treaties and alliances between kings are not observed with much good faith.”

He then draws a satiric contrast with Europe, meaning the exact opposite of what he says: “In Europe, however, and especially in those parts where the faith and religion of Christ prevails, the majesty of treaties is everywhere holy and inviolable, partly through the justice and goodness of kings, partly through the reverence and fear of the Sovereign Pontiffs.”

Of course, the reality in Europe is otherwise: pride makes all treaties cheap. Thus Utopia gradually describes the polity that an optimistic humanist might envision for England in the context of the contemporary historical Renaissance, through the eradication of pride.

However, the perfected state of Utopia is not without its contradictions, and these contradictions arise from the paradox that lies at the very heart of the book: that rational action can give rise to unreasonable consequences; the Utopians most determined efforts to fulfill the most laudable of intentions often meet with failure.

The most striking example of this is the war they fight on behalf of the Nephelogetes against the Alaopolitans – the Utopians are being good neighbors. Thus the Utopians went to the assistance of the Nephelogetes, who claimed that they had suffered injustice at the hands of the Alaopolitans under the pretext of law.

The outcome was catastrophic: “…whether right or wrong, it was avenged by a fierce war. Into this war the neighboring nations brought their energies and resources to assist the power and to intensify the rancor of both sides.

Most flourishing nations were either shaken to their foundations or grievously afflicted. The troubles upon troubles that arose were ended only by the enslavement and surrender of the Alaopolitans. Since the Utopians were not fighting in their own interest, they yielded them into the power of the Nephelogetes, a people who, when the Alaopolitans were prosperous, were not in the least comparable to them.”

Thus, what people experience is often very different from anything they intend, desire, seek, or foresee. Does the eradication of pride really lead to freedom from all evil?

How is Utopian society kept from reverting to pride? Again, we see many paradoxes. For example, the suffocating constraints on individual liberty required to effectuate the Utopians’ attempt to secure more liberty and leisure for all, or the moral injustice of the rational justice by which they regulate numbers in their families and colonies.

The cost of eradicating pride is the deprivation of some portion of an individual’s will, however rationally or virtually that person might act. Utopia thus contains an inbuilt ambiguity; it represents to a large extent what More wished for, even while he saw that if it could be, which it never could, the human condition would remain essentially unchanged in its character and function.

This point brings us to examine religious pride in Utopia. The essential feature of Utopian religion is that it is not definitive, and it resides in the responsive condition of mind rather than an elaborate and arbitrary dogma.

Its main precepts were instituted by Utopus, who allowed for a range of beliefs and provided for the possibility of wise doubting: “On religion he did not venture rashly to dogmatize. He was uncertain whether God did not desire a varied and manifold worship and therefore did not inspire different people with different views.”

The Utopians must, however, accept two fundamental tenets: that the world is governed by providence, not chance, and that the soul is immortal and will receive rewards and punishments after this life. To believe otherwise is to fall from the dignity of human life.

In practice, they let their faith instruct their reason, so that they are capable of modifying the rational rigor of their epicurean philosophy to allow for the justified existence of their ascetic religious order as well as those who wish to enjoy honest pleasures in marriage.

Thus, for the Utopians, religion is not a source of pride: they cannot say that their belief is better, truer, more righteous than any other belief – a position impossible in the Europe of the day, where to doubt the basic tenets of Christian amounted to heresy.

This point is highlighted if we consider that the Utopians profess a willingness to contemplate the possibility that all their assumptions about God and religion may be false: “If he [a Utopian] errs in these matters or if there is anything better and more approved by God than that commonwealth or that religion, he prays that He will, of His goodness, bring him to the knowledge of it, for he is ready to follow in whatever path He may lead him. But if this form of a commonwealth be the best and his religion the truest, he prays that then He may give him steadfastness and bring all other mortals to the same way of living and the same opinion of God – unless there be something in this variety of religions which delights His inscrutable will.”

Thus we see that the Utopians’ prayers manifest immediate faith and hope, while acknowledging doubt about the verity of faith itself. It is this doubt, therefore, that eradicates pride, since one faith system is no truer than another.

Of course, just a year after Utopia was written, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Church and began the Reformation, which would see Europe being plunged into blood, and would cause the death of Thomas More himself. European reality and Utopian idealism stand at opposite ends of what could be and what really is.

 

The photo shows, “The Family of Sir Thomas More,” by Rowland Lockey, painted 1592.

Sin: A Brief History

What is sin? Is it merely religious transgression, or is it the very foundation of human culture? If we understand culture to be the expression of humanity’s search for meaning, then the idea of sin is the nub of all that makes us human: our need for morality, our need for private choice and private space, our erotic desires and pleasures, our fears, our notions of good and evil, right and wrong, and our religious hopes.

Because sin is an intensely human experience (the intriguing notion that other living things also sin disappeared very quickly in the course of civilization), it is found in all parts of the world, and from the very earliest recorded history.

The notion of sin is found in the earliest of human cultures; perhaps sin is the earliest expression of human desire, for it sets us apart from the instinctive drive of the animal world. Desire is very different from instinct because it is constructed by individual and social necessity.

The sinful individual is intensely human, because to sin is to be wrong, which implies the knowledge of rightness. The first stirrings, the pale residue of sin may be discerned in the most ancient of human expressions – animism. What does sin mean for an animistic culture?

This question brings into focus the interplay of the cosmological ramifications of personal choice and action – our deeds when right are constructive; when wrong are sinful and destructive. But for the shaman, sin is an imbalance between the community and forces that may bring harm. This imbalance may be remedied by ritual propitiation alone.

Thus was sin associated with personal and social obligations, wherein it became the duty of the community to restore the correct balance between the social group (the humans) and the more powerful forces inherent in the world at large.

When we begin to look civilization, we become more deeply involved with sin, because sin becomes not only a communal problem but an individual one. Therefore, the earliest civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China) saw sin in legalistic terms, as a contractual breech, for it was a transgression against society – individual action destroys the community.

This gave birth to the various law-codes which were the very first to evaluate and quantify sin – in order to establish remedial redress. This led to the establishment of the idea of paying for one’s sins; that is, the association of sin with personal responsibility.

Once this connection with the individual was established (as, for example, described in The Epic of Gilgamesh), then the idea of sin was translated into religious terms, in that the individual could sin against society and against the gods, both of which involved different methods of payment.

The Greeks saw sin as harmatia (literally, “to go amiss”). This view brought the notion of personal shortcoming into the equation, in that sin resulted when a person had personal defects (such as hubris).

This led to the development of ethics (duty, what ought to be done); that is, human beings should strive to be perfect. When they stop striving to be perfect, they sin.

Thus, with the Greeks, sin acquired philosophical shape; it was no longer misguided personal action, an upsetting of some sacred balance, or a willful act which could be compensated – rather, sin became a method whereby one could understand what was good for human beings and for society.

The Romans maintained this idea, adding only the concept  of civic identity – sin (peccatum) became deviation from the norm, from what the larger population maintained and believed.

It is with the Jews that sin takes on questions of purity and defilement. The Hebrew term for sin, avera, is closely associated with another Hebrew term, avon (“lust).

Here, we see for the first time the association of defilement with desire and thus with sin – a sinful person lusts after more than what he or she has and thus becomes physically dirty, an outcast, since his desire leads him or her astray, and he or she becomes defiled (who should not be touched), and who needs not only ritual cleansing, but also spiritual cleansing. Here lies the link of sin with evil.

For the Hebrews, sin became an offence against God, because a lustful person sought more than what God has allotted him or her. Further, it is with the Jews that sin becomes associated with atonement, through prayer. Here, an intriguing link with sin and language is established, in that it is possible to erase defilement by verbal redress. The importance of the word for the Jews (akin to the Greek concept of language) becomes part of the process of overcoming sin. Thus, we see for the first time, the link with repentance, which will be fully validated by Christianity.

The association of sin with evil stems neither from the Greeks nor the Jews; this legacy is found further east – in ancient Iran. The idea of good and evil (the Devil) is the contribution of Zoroaster, the semi-legendary sage of Persia of long ago, who taught that falsehood is the greatest sin, which can be overcome by truth, and that sin the emanation of the evil forces of the universe, who seek to subvert the inherent goodness within humankind.

The torch of the Roman empire passed to the Christian West, and the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian concepts of sin (falsehood, deviation and defilement) were incorporated into Christian culture – but with a twist – in that humankind was now regarded as sinful not because of personal acts or deeds, but because of their state of being – that is, a person was born sinful, through no fault of his or her own. It was with Christianity that sin became solely associated with theology.

Since sin was innate, the need for atonement was therefore far greater, in that individual deeds were no longer enough – God Himself had to step in (through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ).

Further, the only way sin could be innate was to regard the soul itself as sinful. But because God was also now associated with sin, the notion of atonement was superseded by the concept of repentance (one had now only to trust God and recognize that one’s soul was indeed sinful and therefore needed God’s help).

Consequently, various human failings humans were seen not as being harmful to the body and the community, but to the soul itself. Sin no longer upset the balance, or defiled a person – it now robbed the soul of eternal life. Christianity gave sin a far larger role in human life than it previously had had, in that sin was now associated with redemption.

The Christian notion of innate sinfulness led to further refinement of sin: the association of sin with hell (the proverbial Seven Deadly Sins), fear, sexuality, pleasure, and desire.

However, in the Christian scheme of things, and in a paradoxical way, not every instance of sex, pleasure and desire were sinful – only the utter engrossment in their pursuit was sinful, which made the person forget the true purpose of life (faith in God).

Thus, sin became s measuring rod of how religious, how faithful, how honest, how true, how noble a person could be.

Is the concept of sin still relevant? In our age where religion and morality are no longer central to the way we live, does sin exist today? We have associated it with global morality (greenhouse gases, rampant consumerism, greed, genocide).

How will we continue look at sin in the burgeoning technological age? Despite our desire to be pluralistic, we are inheritors of a very clear understanding of sin (as traced in the previous chapters), to which we resolutely adhere. Sin is now firmly connected with guilt (the result of excessive pleasure, or hedonism). Perhaps this perception of sin fits our age of unbounded consumerism and materialism.

As for the future, it is interesting to note that we have projected sin into outer space – we seek new worlds because we innately fear that we have irreparably destroyed our own.

Are we unwittingly enacting the myth of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden? Is the exploration of outer space an act of redemption, atonement, for the way we have defiled the earth? Is the realization of our sin (the selfish way that we continue to live) make us hope and dream that we can begi again on some distant planet? And will we take sin along with us?

Sin is still firmly grounded in the need for salvation, even if we understand salvation in secular terms – that is, the desire to redeem ourselves from our own willful and destructive acts.

To trace the history of sin is to trace the history of humanity itself. The idea of sin has been part of the human experience from the very beginning.

In fact, we may conclude from this history that each culture and civilization has understood sin in its own way; or rather created sin in its own image.

Perhaps human beings need sin in order to be human, since ultimately sin is the conceptualization of frailty and imperfection – and the strong desire to transcend both these shortcomings sometime in the future.

 

The photo shows, “The Remorse of Orestes,” by William Adolphe Bouguereau, painted in 1862.

Nahum The Carpenter: A Tale Of The First Century

Nahum is my name, my two older sisters are are Zilpah and Ilana, my younger brother is Amos. I am living in Jericho with my wife Ruth and two sons, Ezra and Ezekiel.

I am writing this on a Saturday and it is taking me a long time, you see I had to work in my father’s leather shop when I was thirteen and I have not had much schooling!   I am scribing this on a thin piece of leather and will seal it in a clay jar, I hope someone will find it someday and ask for forgiveness for me for my weakness and my betrayal.

You see, yesterday, Friday,   they crucified Jesus and I was part of the crowd yelling NAIL HIM, NAIL HIM!!!

After he was crucified the curtain in the synagogue was torn down the centre, and then the earth went dark! When that darkness came over Jerusalem I too was hit by a cloud of darkness and I was actually struck dumb and unable to speak or even move for over an hour. It was a feeling of total regret and utter humiliation and I believe it was a message from God.

Let me give you some background. I am a shoemaker, I make and repair all types of leather and twine items, but I really like to make sandals. I once gave a pair to Jesus when he came near my little shop!

My father was also a shoemaker; and he went to the synagogue every Sabbath and took his two boys when we were old enough.  When he died, I was 18, I must admit I have not attended synagogue on a regular basis, I am now 38.

About once a month the Rabbis and treasurers call on me, urging me to attend and to bring my sons. When I give them a few shekels they leave me alone.

One day I was working outside my shop, under a sycamore tree when in the distance I noticed some dust rising as a group was walking in my direction.

I had heard from customers that a man by the name of Jesus was marching around preaching and performing miracles, I was very curious so I dropped my awls and needles and went to see what was happening.

The procession had stopped and Jesus was off to the side talking to somebody. I very quietly ran behind some trees where I could see better, and not be seen,  and was surprised to see my poor and blind cousin Bartimaeus  and his buddy calling Jesus’  name. I thought about going over to him and tell him to stop, and don’t embarrass our family, Jesus does not want to see you, looking so poor and dirty, but something stopped me.
Later I was sure glad it did, because Jesus went over to him and his buddy and in no time they both had gained their sight!!! This man Jesus performed a miracle on my cousin and his friend right in front of me.

I listened to some of his sermons and saw some more miracles. After, when I returned to making sandals, I began to think about this man and his teachings. They made me feel different, I had a warm feeling inside of me, and his sermons were meaning more to me than the teachings of the Rabbis at Bet Midrash or Halachot. I really liked what he was saying!!!

I went about my work for the next few weeks, but whenever I could I would talk to someone who had also come to like this man Jesus. I got to hear lots of stories about his miracles and his teachings to love one another. My dad had always taught us to be kind to others, but this man was actually telling us to love them. We really didn’t understand at first.

Then it all changed for me one day when two older men who had known my father and were big supporters of our synagogue came by and said they heard that I gave this man Jesus a pair of sandals and that people have heard that I have been saying nice things about Jesus.

I told them they were correct and I liked his teachings. They asked me to sit down and then they started to say negative things about Jesus, how he was attempting to make changes to our customs that were hundreds of years old and some said that he had been sent from God as his son.

They made fun of him and encouraged me to forget about Jesus and concentrate on the teachings that have been passed down from generation to generation. They really did not threaten me, but they did say that my business would be more successful if I would forget about this man Jesus.

I was very confused, and undecided as to what to do!!! Do I believe what my father taught me, do I forget about Jesus, do I follow the advice of the men who visited me??? What to do???

One day after I finished some baskets I was working on I decided to walk to a bar not far away. It was crowded and much of the talk was about this stranger in our town who is supposed to be performing miracles and preaching about love.

Many of my friends there had consumed a few too many cups of wine and were getting louder and louder! They started to make fun of Jesus and suggested we do something to get rid of him. I did not really participate, but after all many of these guys were my friends and some were my customers.

When they started asking who wanted to get rid of Jesus, the majority signed up! When they asked me I reluctantly said sure me too.

So, you can see now why so many people shouted NAIL HIM, NAIL HIM!!! Me too!

I know it is only Saturday and I do not know what will happen to this man Jesus, will he have a regular burial? Will there be a big funeral, I wonder what will happen???

What I do know is that I regret my decision to reject him, and now I want to find some way to be forgiven.

 

When not whittling another miniature animal, John Percival can be found listening to bird song most evenings.
The photo shows, “Christ in the House of His Parents,” by John Everett Millais, painted in 1849-1850.

On The Nature Of Spirit: A New View

“Blessed are the dead…“Yes.” saithe the spirit, so, they may rest from their labours and their works live on after them” (Revelation 14:13) “Dust thou art, and onto dust thou shall return” (Genesis 3:19)…  “You are a soul, burdened with a corpse” (Epictetus)

 

Biologically, You Are More Than Your Flesh.

Think of yourself. Think of the flesh that clings to your bones. But you’re more than that, aren’t you?

Biologically speaking, you are more than just your immediate flesh. Bones continuously crack and are replaced through time. The meal you had for lunch soon becomes your flesh. Oxygen cycles through you with every breath you take.

Your atoms mingle in the great cosmic dance of nutrient cycles. All men die. They are eaten by microbes. Soon they enter plants and animals, and are then consumed by us.

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

To the biologist, you are more than just your immediate flesh. To the evolutionary thinker, the body is merely a conduit for the genome.

Your children, brothers, sisters, kinsmen, and all the members of your species carry your genes. They bear your likeness!

Charles Darwin shows how populations evolve, not individual organisms.

Co-evolution is critical to understanding life on this planet. We co-evolve with the organisms around us. A flower doesn’t make any sense without the bee that pollinates it.

We are walking chimeras. Most of the human genome came from bacteria who transferred their genes into our cells.  We are a mutated fusion of organisms!

If a human being is just an amalgamation of proteins made solely by human genes, then most of a human being isn’t even human.

It makes more sense to think of an “individual” as a community of bacteria than a single organism. We are the forest, not the tree. You are more than just your flesh.

If selection, the Logos of nature, favors you, then your likeness will go on. These traits, these forms of likeness, are your spirit. In this way, your spirit echoes through time, generation after generation, through the ages of ages.

 

Existentially, You Are More Than Just Your Immediate Flesh

The Existentialist claims that an individual’s dynamic existence goes beyond the existence of a mere static object. We do not exist in the same way coffee-mugs do. We dream, fear, hate, hope, and love.

We are the sum of our actions and deeds! The mason is more than his flesh, there is a piece of himself in every stone he lays down. His stone-works stand long after his flesh is laid to ruin.

Attempt to fathom the entirety of your own works. Think of dreams you possessed made flesh by your toil. They are your children, they are you insomuch as they bear your likeness.

Dreams beget dreams, and works beget works. The earth blooms with the seeds we’ve planted, and we reap what we have sown.

Each of us has our own personal butterfly effect which ripples through time. Try to fathom the depths of the one that cascades from you. These are the forces that stem from your incarnation.

Look back at the all the forces that led to your incarnation. The labours of your ancestors not only gave birth to you, but the city we take for granted. Even the breakfast you ate in the morning had a history. Did you ever wonder why Americans drank coffee and the English drank tea?

Our past goes beyond our birth. We are rooted in our history, our lineage, and our traditions. They give us shape.

We ARE they sum of our butterfly effect and our past. This is the spirit of our incarnation, the flesh that clings to our bones.

 

On The Nature Of Spirit

The spirit is greater than the flesh! It has a greater timespan, occupies a greater space, and presses on with a greater force.

The fleshly lives of human-beings last only for a moment, but how long does their spirit prevail?

Which traits unceasingly continue through the ages? What is the nature of that which is eternal?

Ultimately, that which is eternal is that which is good, self-sustaining, just, harmonic, and loving. These are the parts of our spirit that continue.

Evil consumes itself, it is unsustainable. You can’t build a city where everyone is always lying, discordant, and entangled in a stasis of self-conflicts. The ancients knew this, hence why Plato professed it.

Disharmony consumes precious energy, whereas harmonic systems are far more competitive because of their greater efficiency.

The dis-harmonic works we spawn disintegrate in their conflicts.  The holocausts of violence, chaos of political treachery, and the pollution of the Earth are not sustainable. These works are the weakness of humanity, not its strength.

But goodness begets goodness! The righteous ally with the righteous, but the wicked are alone.

Our good works are sustainable. The city founded on virtue continues in as much as it adheres to virtue. The worthy city shines like a city on hill.

Inasmuch as we are righteous, our spirit is righteous. Inasmuch as our spirit is righteous, it will pass on though the ages of ages.

You are more than just your flesh. Our spirit is the incarnation of all the forces that led to our existence and all the forces that proceed from it. These forces hail from the dawn of all existence and proceed to the end of time, they are our immortal soul.

In this way, the spirit is greater than the flesh. Try to understand that you are a spirit burdened with a corpse.

 

 

The photo shows, “All Souls’ Day,” by Jakub Schikaneder, painted in 1888.