Dare To Be A Daniel

The book of Daniel and all parts of the Bible relate to world history and you cannot understand world history without the Bible. Similarly, if you attempt to try and figure out FUTURE events in the history of the world without the Bible, you will also fail.

The Bible, in particular, speaks of one nation – Israel, but it also mentions other surrounding nations like Egypt, Arabia, Assyria now Iran, Babylon now Iraq. This area is known as the cradle of civilisation. This is where world history began around the fertile region of the great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris. And where God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldea’s in Babylon to go to Canaan.

We begin when God’s people, the Israelites, have been taken by force from the Promised Land by the most powerful political force of their day; the Babylonians. The defeat was crushing but on reflection the people should have seen it coming. Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah had warned them that punishment would follow as long as they continued to disobey God.

Even the prophet Habakkuk reminded Israel he told them, ‘look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.’ The Babylonians are on their way, beware. Israel had been warned to mend their ways.

God had had His fill with Israel’s disobedience and what he said would happen, happened. The city of Jerusalem was besieged; the temple, the palace and walls were destroyed. This pagan king Neb also removed from the temple the sacred articles used for worship and placed them in the temples of the gods of Babylon. He executed the leading citizens and deported tens of thousands.

Nebuchadnezzar was, in effect, making a public statement to the world that God does NOT exist. If God did exist, he would protect His people. He didn’t, so therefore He doesn’t exist. I am the new super power, the new demi-god. And to confirm this, the sacred articles from the temple in Jerusalem were now on display in the temple of his own god, Marduk.

They would stand forever as a symbol of the power of his own gods and the powerlessness, death and defeat of Israel’s god, Yahweh. Yahweh was dead on the battlefield along with thousands of Israelites. Israel had continued to sin despite continuous warnings to stop. Each year the inevitable seemed closer and closer and yet the leaders in Jerusalem and the people seemed to deny it.

They looked back at the temple to the Ark of the Covenant and to the promises given to David, assuring themselves that everything would be alright. Somehow they believed that despite their idolatry God would protect the nation.

But now exiled in Babylon with the glory days of Jerusalem and the familiarity of the Jewish way of life a distant memory, hope was fading fast. To the Babylonians and even to the Israelites it looked as if God had been defeated. And even if God was alive, how could they serve Him in exile? How could they be God’s people in a foreign land when all the props their faith relied on had been removed? Their precious temple was destroyed and left in ruins. As the exiles tramped across the desert lands towards Babylon, they must have had a lot to think about. The last days of Jerusalem would have been indelibly marked on their minds and its destruction. Even the neighbouring nations turned against them. What sort of future as exiles would they face now? What would happen to their precious promised land. Is it all about to end?

We, too, are exiles, are we not. We live in a land in a country as a minority whose Christian ways and values are becoming increasingly alien to the majority. We don’t have invading armies to deal with; our issues concern the mindset, attitude and behaviour of the wider population who have little interest in Almighty God.

Our home is not the island of Ireland nor Canada; it is the eternity destination of the New Jerusalem, the new earth and the new heavens.

The story of Daniel and his three friends showed the Israelites and shows us that the exile didn’t have to be the end it could be the beginning. It could be a new opportunity to show love and obedience to God even in a strange land. It could be the start of a deeper faith which proved God’s faithfulness and recognised His sovereignty even in testing times.

Daniel’s story spans the rule of three kings; he starts off as a young teenager aged about 17 years who is taken captive along with thousands of his fellow citizens, and he later rises to be the king’s top civil servant. Not only could he govern a country but he could interpret dreams as well. He possessed wisdom, knowledge and understanding. He was truly gifted by Yahweh. Daniel is an example of an obedient life which God blessed; however, working in a pagan culture was not without its problems. As an exile and follower of God, he had many issues to deal with.

The clash between obedience to God and obedience to the state was inevitable. As it is with us today. From the day he entered his Babylonian training to the very end of his life, including the lions’ den, he and his friends faced relentless pressure to conform to the state and be subject to it. The state was openly antagonist towards the God of Daniel and his fellow exiles. Yet through it all, Daniel showed that obedience to God was possible despite the threats of a hostile society.
Let’s begin with Daniel and his friends now in exile. If you have been in a different country you will notice that things are very different. Different food, clothes, people are different, different traditions, religion, language and money to name but a few.

If you are a Christian in a different land, a pagan land, it is more noticeable because usually you are not encouraged to practise Christianity. One reason being – there are no Christian churches around. You hear a Mullah cry out from a Minaret. This immediately concerns you. How do you worship God when there are no churches about or allowed? You have to be very careful what you say and how you live out your faith. If we visit another country on holiday, we know we are coming back home again. But for Daniel and his friends there was no visa, they were there for good. All they were familiar with is; no more. It has been destroyed. There is no going back home.

This foreign, pagan king Nebuchadnezzar decided that he would begin a programme of assimilation into Babylonian society through systematic brain washing. He wanted to delete Daniel’s culture, faith and religion and give them each a new identity, a Babylonian one. In much the same way special agent Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy films is given a new identity. For Daniel it was not as brutal as Jason Bourne’s, but it was constant and forceful. Daniel and his three friends accepted the new language. They went along with being taught how to speak Babylonian, they even read Babylonian literature, including myths and legends which would have been very difficult for them considering a Jew would have read and known the Torah.

They were also given new Names which they accepted. They were called after pagan gods. Daniel was given the new name of Belthazzar, to Hananiah – Shadrach; to Mishaal – Meshach; and to Azariah – Abednego. Again, this was all designed to assimilate them into a different culture by gradually removing their Jewish identity and nationality. Interestingly, Daniel and his friends went along with this brain washing but only up to a point. They were wise enough to know what was going on and wise enough to know which battles to fight and which ones to leave alone.

The battle they decided to fight was the one concerning the food. The food would have been offered in thanks to pagan idols before it was consumed. The food would therefore NOT have been kosher according to the Levitical food laws of the Jews and this could well have been the reason for Daniel and his friends’ refusal.

But it’s not conclusive. The real reason was something else. Daniel and his friends knew that once they ate this food, which was really food from the king’s table, they would enter into a relationship thereby binding themselves to the king. In practise you were really signing over your independence and integrity and becoming one of the king’s lackeys, under his control – a puppet.
Daniel and his friends were having none of it. This was the battle they chose to fight and the marker they laid down. And we can see how it worked in their favour with God’s help. In contrast, if you read the last few verses in 2 Kings 25, you will see how Jehoiachin, former king of Judah, was taken into exile. He was released from prison because he submitted to the King of Babylon.

Was it easy for Daniel and his friends to disobey the king’s orders about the king’s table? No, it wasn’t. They knew that at any time this Nebuchadnezzar could turn on them like a wounded bear and have them killed, just for the fun. They had seen him in action and were bound to be afraid of what would happen to them if they did not carry out his instructions. They had faith though and they were prepared to be strong enough to stand up for it; even though it may cost them their lives.

Daniel and his friends understood that there was nothing wrong with being in a pagan court and learning pagan things; but there were great dangers to avoid and traps to side step. He could not let himself be trapped as Joseph had been by Potiphar’s wife. Or get caught as Solomon had in the dealings with foreign women. Daniel and his three Jewish friends had been faithful in little and as young men in their teens, this was to be the beginning of their being faithful in much.

We are to stand up and be counted over small things, before we move towards bigger things. Whether it’s in the church, the staffroom, the office floor, the hospital ward, or board room. God tests us first with the small matters before presenting us with bigger issues. If we don’t honour God with the small things, we certainly won’t do it with the big things! How does this work out in daily life?

The preacher and author, Rick Warren, wrote a book called ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, which has since sold around 40 million copies. He is the current senior pastor of Saddleback Church in California, and he says that he has not received one dollar from the sale of the book. The sale of 40 million books would make you fairly wealthy!

But God had tested him earlier in his life about how he used his money personally and in the church before this book was published. He still drives around in a beat-up station wagon, the marriage rings he and his wife bought were 50 dollars; his watch was 19 dollars from Walmart, and he still lives in the same house. In fact, he reverse tithes. He tithes 90% of his salary and lives off 10%. Impressive.

The test was in the small things first – before the big money would come in. I have found that quite often as a Christian, this standing up in the small things involves money. Recently since our new move to outside Belfast we have been getting the field divided up for the Alpaccas we keep. I went to the local Farm Supply shop and loaded up a field gate, fencing, fence posts, staples and other items. When I got home, I looked at the invoice and could see that I had accidently not been charged for the field gate. What was I to do? Keep the gate and say nothing; Afterall no one was any the wiser.

Nobody was aware what had happened. I tell you that story not to make me look good, but to let you know that these traps often occur when we least expect them and they probe deeply into where we stand with God. But God is watching.

Daniel and his friends had put God before every other consideration and he, in turn, honoured them. We are told that at the end of ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. They ate vegetables and drank water. No royal food and No royal wine. Maybe we should take note of this and eat more vegetables ourselves and drink more water, and cut out the tray bakes and pavlova. The results would benefit ourselves and the NHS considerably. It’s only a suggestion though!

In closing, through this change of food diet, what had Daniel and his friends really achieved?? With God’s help and encouragement, they had won a battle, and a very important one at that. They had won a battle against assimilation; they had won a battle of NOT being absorbed into a pagan culture. They had won a battle of not conforming to the pattern of the world and its values.

The Apostle Paul clearly tells the Romans in Chapter 12: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds; (why), so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

If your mind, attitude and behaviour is in tandem with the drumbeat of the world and its values then how on earth will you be able to discern the will of God? How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land? Daniel and his friends were able to sing it. They allowed the Spirit of God to renew their minds.
Their faith in God shone through. It had not been eradicated. Through God’s mercy and action, the young men had won a significant battle.

But also, God’s reputation had been on the line. In this pagan, pluralist land with all its various gods, these young men represented God and it was He who gave them success. God gave them physical health, and intellectual ability to prevail. They were His mouth, His hands, His feet, His heart, His mind.

For the third time in this chapter, God acted again to preserve His people. They could have been wiped out but they weren’t. The Jews could have been wiped out if it were not for Queen Esther. Pharaoh and Herod tried to wipe the Jews out. Hitler tried his best to do it in the concentration camps; but he didn’t. So did Stalin in the Gulags.

Nebuchadnezzar may have thought God was dead, killed in battle; but he wasn’t. It’s the same with people today. ‘Where is God when I need him?’ they cry. ‘If God was alive, he would not have allowed this or that to happen.’ ‘Why did he not stop that war or that airplane crash?’ Why this, why that?

The conclusion they draw is: He doesn’t exist or He no longer exists. Since people have populated this planet, they have agreed in principle with the German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche who said,
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Know this; God is not dead: God is with His people whether they are in Israel, America, Canada, or China and he watches over them. He will make sure they prevail, whether incarcerated, exiled or free. By the way; I did pay for the field gate. May God give us the courage – to “Dare to be a Daniel.”

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Judgement Of Daniel,” by Valentin de Boulogne, ca. 1621-1622.

Destruction And Beauty

Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti.

There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction.

Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence.

The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes: “But our citizenship [“politeumaπολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21).

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”). It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome.

On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving.

Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for 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 image shows the crucifixion, with Christ being offered a drink of vinegar on a sponge; in the foreground, the iconoclasts, John Grammaticus and Bishop Anthony of Pamphylia, efface the image of Christ with a sponge. The Chludov Psalter, Byzantine, 9th-century.

The Great Banquet

The story is told of a young man who lived a long time ago in Southern England. He had heard of a huge white horse which had been mysteriously carved into an unknown hillside centuries ago.

He was so captivated by this rumour that he set off in search of the fabled horse, travelling the full length and breadth of Southern England. But alas, he could not find it. Eventually he returns home disappointed, concluding that the white horse of his dreams didn’t exist, after all.

Then one day as he surveyed his own village after climbing a very tall tree and getting a good vantage point, he was astonished to see the object of his search. The White Horse had been there all the time. In fact, his village lay at the very centre of it, but he’d never been able to recognise it before, concealed as it was among the fields, trees and rivers.

The point of that story is that people particularly young people, set off on quests, like travelling the world, going to exotic places, sampling foreign cultures, do so as they look for answers about life. Sadly, in spite of all their efforts and as time goes by, they can become, increasingly disillusioned, cynical or agnostic. They don’t find the utopia, the White Horse’ they’re searching for.

Perhaps, they need to return home. Maybe if they did, they would be amazed to find that the answers they’re looking for are there already, as close as the bible on the book shelf, or the church on the street corner. They simply haven’t recognised the unique value of these things because they are too common place, too familiar. Familiarity breeds contempt.

To try to break down such a wall of indifference, or even contempt, and to help people discover the importance and the relevance of the Christian message, is not an easy task.
This is especially so when many people think they know that message already. It’s a bit like the measles vaccination given to babies. All too often a dose of religion, especially if given in childhood, simply increases your resistance to the real thing when you encounter it later in life. Sunday School Exams, Unhelpful RE teachers at school, tedious morning assemblies in chapel, and the minister’s boring monologues.

They all come back into your mind like a flood, immediately an evangelist stands up to speak. ‘Oh no, not again’.

It’s like antibodies descending upon some invading virus in your blood stream. Those memories all conspire to ensure your spiritual immunity to everything that preacher might want to say. Even the best sermons fail to penetrate such defences.

If you don’t believe me. Read what Jesus says. As the world’s greatest biblical teacher and evangelist, he experienced the exact same problem. Frequently the people he had the hardest trouble with, were those with strong religious backgrounds, who carried round the biggest copy of the Torah they could get their hands on. And who looked the part.

It’s the Sabbath Day. Jesus has been invited to have a meal at the home of a ‘prominent Pharisee.’ Someone who comes from a strong religious background.
Everybody is wary of each other, at this nibbles and wine function; all trying hard to make a good impression. Vying for position. Jesus of course knows this so he tries to change the atmosphere by offering some controversial advice on how to organise a really good dinner party.

Don’t invite wealthy friends and neighbours, they’re boring he says. Instead invite the homeless youngsters and street kids you see begging on the streets. Invite the poor, the destitute, the crippled and you will be blessed. I’m sure Jesus’ words went down like a lead balloon. This was a real conversation stopper. As Jesus looked round upon the gathering, he would have noticed that there were NO street kids, poor people, or the homeless there.

During the awkward silence there is usually someone around who makes some wise comment to try and keep the conversation within everyone’s comfort zone. There was such a guy at Jesus’ table who adds his own pious comment; ‘blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.’ We can just picture him can’t we. Measured, all the religious trappings, nodding head, full beard.

It was a coded way of saying, ‘oh you don’t have to worry about me Jesus, I’m very religious. I know all about the kingdom’. Now he may have been expecting Jesus reply; Amen brother, well said or a hallelujah’. But he miscalculated. Jesus was far to shrewd to be deceived by his hypocrisy and far too good a teacher to allow it to pass unchallenged.

You see this was a classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. This guy thought he was spiritually ok. He knew about and believed in heaven and was quite sure he was going there.
He naturally assumed Jesus would want to support him. But Jesus doesn’t. Instead Jesus thinks quickly and tells a close to the bone story. And no doubt everyone in the group is all ears.

Jesus starts telling the story which has a strong Old Testament theme about the prophets preaching preparing the way for the coming Kingdom. All good so far, they think. But then Jesus veers off in a slightly different direction. He says; ‘at the time of the banquet he (God) sent his servant (Jesus) to tell those who had been invited, come for everything is now ready.’
The kingdom of God is here. Don’t have to wait any more. It’s arrived. Therefore, time to act and enter. Everything is ready, come on in.

But then read what happens. But they all began to make excuses. Yes excuses. The first one said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see to it. Please excuse me’. Second one said; ‘I have just been to the market and bought oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me’. Another said; ‘I just got married; so, I can’t come either’.

The amazing thing in all of this, is that people could be personally invited by Jesus to share in the kingdom of God and his promise of eternal life in heaven. And yet decline. They say NO thanks. It doesn’t add up. It’s not being arrogant, it’s just plain stupid. It’s like buying an expensive house without even looking at it. Or buying 10 oxen without seeing whether or not any of them were lame. In fact, these excuses that are offered are so flimsy they cannot be even regarded as real excuses.

Jesus is saying that when men and women turn their backs on the kingdom of God and the joy of heaven, they do so for the sake of mere trivialities. Like the pursuit of material gain, personal adventure, or sexual desire.

They choose such things above accepting God’s gracious invitation. Especially now perhaps more than ever, there are far too many counter-attractions bidding for the time, money, and attention of people. They may have been interested in going to the party once, but all sorts of things have invaded their life since then. What flimsy excuse are you the reader holding on to that is preventing you from entering God’s kingdom?

The so-called religious people Jesus is saying will be excluded; because they are basing their faith on their religious pedigree, or their back ground.

Well. then, who is to be included? Those who will be at the great banquet will be the poor, the crippled, the lame, the outcast, the destitute. Those who you least expect will be there, many of whom have no religious back grounds at all. And they haven’t offered any excuses to Jesus.

Having wealth, being busy with various interests even though they are good and wholesome like our family, can be obstacles, and distractions. And we use them as excuses. I’m too busy lord. I’ve to get my family through university; I’ve to move house, go on a holiday, change jobs. Go into a nursing home.

These poor and destitute people who have nothing to distract them or invade their personal lives will be there. But the good news is there is still room for many more. Jesus is saying the kingdom of God will be removed from you Jews, because of your hardness of heart and your feeble excuses and given to others; the invitation will be given to the Gentiles for them to come in.

This group did not like what Jesus was saying. God’s chosen people not allowed into the kingdom of heaven. It’s not that the door to heaven is permanently bolted shut for all Jews for ever and a day; it’s still open, but others will be there, besides the Jew.

Those who were expecting to enter the kingdom because they had received advance invitations through the prophets and the law would miss out. But those who expected to be shut out because they were not good enough, or had never heard of the banquet because they were complete pagans, would be the ones to enjoy it.
Familiarity, this parable emphasizes, does indeed breed contempt, and Jesus responds that contempt is a sin that God does not lightly forgive.

What does the twist in this parable mean for you and me? Some, like Jesus’ dinner guests at the Pharisee’s table come from a good religious back ground.

We have been baptised or dedicated as children by believing parents. Which is a good start. Maybe we have attended Sunday School or Bible class. That’s good too. We have come out to church regularly over the years and have heard all about the Christian faith many times. And as a result, we think we’re Christians. But are we?

That’s the question this parable puts to each one of us. We may know how to say grace before meals, and recite the Lord’s Prayer, but Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God demands more of us than just piety.

In the film, ‘A Few Good Men’ Tom Cruise is the young flash Navy attorney who questions the integrity and honesty of one of the officers Keffer Sutherland who is stationed at a military base.

Sutherland takes offence at the tone of the question. He claims he is a good US Marine, passed with flying colours from Westpoint. Comes from a good military back ground; and that only two books sit on his bed side table. The US Marine Code and the King James Version of the bible. Not just any copy of the bible but the King James Version.

He never said that he actually read either book. But the implication is that these books define who I am. I am a good patriot. We need to be so careful and ensure that ‘Familiarity does Not breed Contempt’, where we switch off, thinking I’m ok. Some may be thinking this invitation to the heavenly banquet is not for me. I have messed up my life. I’m not good enough. I put on a good front but I know inside I’m a waster. Well you are in good company with Jesus.

Heaven is made for people like you. People who know their failings, who know how they have fallen; their sin is before them. But you have to want to do something about your situation. How do we do that. Follow Jesus’ guidance. He tells people young and old to ‘repent and believe’. Repent means to change your sinful ways and believe in Jesus as the Son of God.

Don’t feel you are excluded in any way. This story tells us clearly that there is more room in the kingdom of God for misfits and sinners. The gospel is exclusive in that no one else can save you except Jesus Christ. ‘Salvation is found in no one else under heaven’.

But it’s also inclusive in that Jesus turns no one away. The invitation is for everyone under heaven no matter who you are.

So why delay, ‘come’ he says, ‘everything is ready’.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “L’Invitation au festin” (Invitation to the Feast), by Eugène Burnand, painted imn 1899.

Intelligent Design And Cognitive Science Of Religion

Introduction

The belief in the ordered character of the Universe has been present in the human thought since the times of antiquity. The contemporary doctrine of the Intelligent Design (further denoted as ID) grew, in the 1980s, out of creation science which aimed at providing scientific support for the literal account of creation as portrayed in the Book of Genesis. In most general terms, ID stipulates that the high level complexity and ordering of the living organisms in the Universe, as well as their adaptation to the demands of the environment, imply that they were purposefully brought forth by an intelligent designer and not by the workings of the laws of nature. Although the inconclusiveness of these arguments is nowadays commonly accepted (e.g. Ayala 2009, 128–149), the efforts to justify the scientific character of ID still receive considerable interests, as they appeal to simple intuitions rather than sophisticated scientific arguments.

The goal of the presented article is to subject the doctrine of Intelligent Design (further denoted as ID) to the scrutiny of the tools of a novel division of cognitive science, named, the cognitive science of religion, from both methodological and epistemic points of view. In particular, this scrutiny will allow for the assessment of the influence of the development of science on the validity ID’s inferential power. So far, it has been established with the methods of the cognitive science of religion that the argumentation in favor of ID follows upon the content specific human cognition acquired in the course of specific evolutionary scenarios that have programmed the human mind to interpret the patterns of ordering in the Universe as resulting from the action of intentional agents. To put things bluntly, we are in-born “intelligent designers,” whether we like it or not. It is not surprising that the belief in ID turns out to be the most natural and immediate response to the experience of the ordering of the Universe. Moreover, it explains why the belief is so widespread in common sense perception, and why it takes time as well as scientific maturity to leave pre-scientific intuitions behind.

The pursuit of the article’s goal will proceed in the following steps. Firstly, the conceptual content of the ID doctrine will be surveyed to establish its fundamental claims. This step will hinge upon the precise distinction between ordering and design and the mechanisms of the spontaneous emergence of ordered structures in the Universe.

Secondly, the cognitive mechanisms responsible for the preference of the human mind in placing the intentional agency as responsible for the effects of ordering will be presented.

Thirdly, based on some preliminary considerations by Grygiel, the impact of the development of science on the activation of these mechanisms will be assessed.

And fourthly, it will be claimed that although the ID doctrine cannot serve as means to draw any specific conclusions on how ordering emerges in the Universe, it constitutes a suitable metaphor to support the belief in God as the Creator of the Universe.

Intelligent Design And Its Conceptual Content

Before the unpacking of the conceptual content of the ID doctrine is accomplished, it is worthwhile to carry out a simple semantic analysis of the concepts of “order” and “design.” In regards to order, its basic meaning derives from the logic of relations to articulate the idea of precedence. No mention of the authorship of this order is ever made.

The etymology of the term “design,” however, clearly refers to the activity of specifying, or to singling out from among the many. Moreover, design is often used alternately with project. This yields meaning complementary to design, namely, that of throwing forward, whereby a certain idea is metaphorically visualized as being thrown upon a chaotic substratum.

Consequently, two semantic components of design must be taken into account: Purpose and perfection. In regards to purpose, design implies the activity of a designer, namely, a conscious agent who, driven by a specific goal, makes a deliberate choice from a large number of options available. By acting with purpose, the designer does not arbitrarily select any option available, like in a lottery, but elicits a considerable effort to arrive at a unique arrangement that fits his/her rational plan. Once this plan is placed in the framework of participation in the world of the Platonic eternal forms, it acquires the attribute of perfection.

This simple semantic analysis can be given a more precise meaning with the use of the mathematical concept of probability. The standard definition of probability understood as the ratio of the number of willed choices to the entire number of options from among which these choices can be made indicates that there might be an connection between events of low probability and the activity of an intentional agency. It seems intuitively fitting that the more unique the character of the choice, that is the lower its probability due to the precision of its selection, the more obvious the need to postulate the designer’s intervention.

According to Aristotle, events of low probability qualify as accidental: “The accidental, then, is what occurs, but not always nor of necessity, nor for the most part. Now we have said what the accidental is, and it is obvious why there is no science of such a thing; for all science is of that which is always or for the most part, but the accidental is in neither of these classes.” This assertion brings in a new element into play, namely, that of qualifying chance events as intractable by the scientific method. Consequently, there arises a clear-cut intuitive dichotomy in the explanation of the occurrence of events in nature: high-probability predictable events occur as workings of the regularities built into nature while the low-probability chance events call for an intervention of an intentional agency.

With the conceptual tools thus specified it is now possible to tackle the conceptual content of the ID doctrine. It gained its greatest momentum in the 90’s as efforts were undertaken to fight off theory of the Darwinian evolution. The main objection advanced by ID relies precisely upon the dichotomy explained above: If the natural selection responsible for the increase of complexity in the Universe rests on chance, it is unable to bring forth entities as complex as the living organisms.

An American theologian, John. F. Haught, who testified as an expert in theology at the famous trial held in the USA in 2005 against the introduction of ID doctrine into the high school biology curriculum, defines this doctrine as, “a set of ideas, as well as a vocal cultural movement, that seeks to curb the influence of Darwinism by insisting that science must invoke a non-natural ‘intelligent cause’ for such seemingly improbable phenomena as speciation and cellular complexity.”

The precise arguments in favor of ID were proposed by two of its most vocal advocates: A biochemist, Michael Behe, and a mathematician, William Dembski. Behe coined the concept of “irreducible complexity” as he argued that the functions of certain complex biological structures could not have been developed through the gradual increase of complexity. In regards to the origin of systems such as the biochemical machinery of vision he asserts the following: “They were designed not by the laws of nature, not by chance and necessity; rather they were planned. The designer knew what the systems would look like when they were completed then took steps to bring the systems about.”

In the effort to explain how one might know that a given system has originated through design, Behe continues: “design is evident when a number of separate, interacting components are ordered in such a way as to accomplish a function beyond the individual components. The greater the specificity of the interacting components required to produce the function, the greater is our confidence in the conclusion of design.”

The intriguing link between specificity and design comes more visibly to the fore in the ID conceptualized by Dembski as “specified complexity.” This is a convoluted formal argument carried out within the theory of information. In a nutshell, Dembski maintains that specified complexity appears in a given system when the system contains a great amount of independently specified information and is complex, that is, it exhibits a low probability of being formed. He illustrates these ideas with the following example: “A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex. A long sentence of random letters is complex without being specified.

A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified.” Since Dembski expressly associates the process of specification with the activity of the designer, the process may be considered as reflecting the intuitive meaning of the intentional setting aside or singling out, contained in the term “design” discussed above. Yet such singling out by itself is not of any significance unless it operates on a large population of individuals, thereby making the selection truly unique and original.

Regardless of how persuasively Behe’s and Dembski’s arguments may sound, they do not provide any explanation on how to make a transition from the objective features of the design, such as, specificity and complexity, to the subjective mental states of an intelligent designer. This is exactly where the tools of the cognitive science of religion enter in.

Intentionality and Design

The main premise for the application of the tools of the cognitive science of religion to the analysis of the ID doctrine is to establish why the human mind intuitively posits a conscious intentional agency as the cause of the ordering of the Universe. The particular suitability of the tools of the cognitive science of religion to assess the ID doctrine consists in two factors.

Firstly, these tools rely on an extremely general conception on who a god might be with no reference to any religious traditions. Barrett states that “gods, here, will refer to: (1) counterintuitive intentional agents, (2) that a group of people reflectively believe exists, (3) that have a type of existence or action (past, present, or future) that can, in principle, be detected by people, (4) and whose existence motivates some difference in human behavior as a consequence.”

The counterintuitivity which takes up the role of supernaturality in this case implies that the tools of the cognitive science of religion easily apply in situations where the causes of ordering do not have to be of divine nature at all. Secondly, the cognitive science of religion rests on the assumption that religiosity thus conceived is an evolutionary byproduct.

Accordingly, religiosity did not emerge as a result of a specific evolutionary adaptation, but arose due to the operation of the ordinary natural cognitive powers of the human mind. The first important point in the cognitive explanation of the origin of design is that the human mind exhibits a strong conceptual bias, namely, content–specific cognition, that manifests itself through an array of intuitive expectations on what the world is like and what course of the natural phenomena is to be foreseen. These expectations sum up to what is termed as “folk ontology.”

Pascal Boyer has pointed out that the religious beliefs where gods are conceptualized as intentional agents arise largely based on intuitive (non-reflective) concepts to facilitate the efficacy of these beliefs in the real-time operation. Barret has put forward the thesis that the quickly spreading religious concepts need to be minimally counterintuitive, that is, to violate folk ontology only to a certain small degree.

Additionally, these concepts must exhibit substantial inferential potential to form reflective beliefs so that sense can be made out of what is being observed and experienced in reality. It turns out that these are the minimally counterintuitive intentional agents equipped with mental states which qualify as the chief meaning-making tools.

What are the reasons for this particular applicability of the concept of an intentional agent to make sense out of reality? The evolutionary explanations of this state of affairs rely on the two basic cognitive mechanisms called the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD) and the theory of mind (ToM) otherwise called “folk psychology.”

HADD was first suggested by Stephen Guthrie and its primary function is to purposely over-interpret the perception of a self-propelled motion as resulting from the action of an intentional agent equipped with mental states. Since such a motion has no visible mechanical cause, it violates the expectation of physicality, whereby it triggers HADD, so that the attack of a predator can be avoided and the reproductive success secured. The theory of mind supplements the workings of HADD, by supplying the array of possible mental processes and motivations that might have led to the behavior perceived.

What truly counts as fundamental from the point of view of this study, however, is the HADD reveals sensitivity not only to the actual motions of a supposedly minded agent but to the traces of its activity as well. The traces may include easily recognizable objects such as deer trails and bird nests, as well as any other manifestations of ordering. If the encountered pattern does not correspond to any familiar mechanical or biological cause, the human mind will likely place an intentional agency as its cause because it has a natural bias towards explaining the perception of ordering in teleological terms, rather than stipulating the activity of natural causes.

This phenomenon has been extensively studied by an American psychologist, Deborah Kelemen. The studies performed on young children demonstrated a marked preference in explaining a given natural regularity by answering the question, “what for?”. Consequently, a design or a regularity encountered in nature can be easily clarified as the activity of an intelligent designer and – ultimately – of a creator.

Further justification of why the human mind intuitively associates orderings observed in nature with a purposeful action of an intentional agent comes from an argument based on probabilities. Some indications in this regard have been made by De Cruz and De Smedt, but they call for further substantiation.

What follows is a proposal of such a substantiation, conjectured by the author of this study. The conditions under which local ordering in the Universe may take place, are given by the laws of thermodynamics, which involve entropy as the formal measure of disorder. These laws stipulate that the local ordering reflected in the local decrease of entropy must be accompanied by the local decrease of the internal energy. The energy of a system can be lowered through work that is performed on it.

This fact agrees with the intuitive experience of having to invest a considerable and purposeful effort into achieving results that require organization of things into coherent unities (e.g., building a house). Similarly, the disintegration into chaos and formlessness occurs spontaneously in nature and its prevention always demands external intervention. This observation suggests that there may exist a link between the process of ordering and the activity of a personal intentional agency, that is, a designer.

This link becomes evident, as one considers Boltzmann’s definition of entropy given by the famous formula S = k lnΩ, where k is the thermodynamic constant and Ω is the number of equivalent microstates available to a system in a certain macrostate.

The complexity of the system, in Dembski’s terms, indicates that there is a large number of possible configurations – micro- states available to this system, whereby the probability of picking out a single one is low. Such a process of selection will result in a significant decrease of entropy, as compared to the situation in which the complexity is small, meaning that much greater force will need to be exerted in the same time period to achieve selection in a complex system. And now comes the key cognitive argument.

According to Leslie, the subjective mental representation contains three distinct levels with the representation of a mechanical force being the most basic one that supplies information to the two higher ones. Consequently, as Sørensen states, “representation of force is an implicit part in both understanding entities in the world as agents with intentions and in being an agent oneself when acting with specific goals in mind based on beliefs.”

In conjunction with the laws of thermodynamics, this statement yields a possible explanation of why the perception of order may intuitively invoke an intentional agency as its primary cause, and why such an agency produces events of low probability. Despite its conjectural character calling for a more in-depth empirical study, it seems rational to expect that the capacity of producing design qualifies as another constituent of the folk ontology, that is, the content-specific expectation of what it means to be human.

Conquering Counterintuitivity

There is no doubt that the new scientific discoveries slowly but constantly shift the threshold of what qualifies as counter-intuitive. The possibility of overcoming the cognitive biases through the growth of scientific knowledge and its subsequent cultural dissemination has been convincingly argued by De Cruz and De Smedt. For instance, the introduction of one of the most fruitful conceptual tools of contemporary physics, namely, that of a field, clearly does away with the intuitive belief that motion occurs through contact with a visible cause. Since fields are invisible carriers of forces spreading over the entire space, their effects occur by having no visible mover.

More importantly, as revealed by the theory of the dissipative systems, ordering into very complex low-probability structures, such as, living organisms, does not have to mean design, because it can be brought forth by the workings of the natural laws. In short, life is a dissipative structure. According to this theory, order can naturally emerge out of chaos, so that no intervention of an intelligent designer is necessary in this process. The emergence of ordering in the Universe involves two strategies: (1) the necessity of the laws of nature, combined with (2) chance as the random character of fluctuations of the environment. Since these fluctuations fall under rigorous mathematical treatment within probability theory, the evolutionary origin of life in the Universe can be easily subsumed within the scientific rationality of a mathematical character.

Consequently, chance no longer contradicts order but becomes its seminal constituent. This suggests that, what for the scientifically illiterate generations immediately led to the acknowledgement of the workings of an intelligent designer, no longer has to have this effect for those that are scientifically informed.

Moreover, the studies of the evolutionary processes of bringing forth this growth reveal that the characteristics of these processes do not coincide with the idea of a design resulting from the purposeful activity of a designer. This is particularly evident in the specificity of natural selection that brings forth novelty, not by means of the optimization of a new project, but by means of slow modifications of the existing structures.

In short, the novelty resulting from the workings of the natural selection is imperfect and flawed. For instance, this imperfection appears in the structure of the human brain that could have been designed as a much more efficient and structurally organized device. Interestingly enough, it turns out that even in the 18th-century the famous advocate of ID, William Payley, was quite aware of the imperfections of nature; but in light of his overwhelming conviction on the purposeful authorship of the Universe, he disregarded them on the premise that their impact was minimal.

In order to gain more focus in addressing this problem, I have suggested the concepts of vincible and invincible counterintuitivity to reflect the dynamic nature of the scientific knowledge in its impact on the formation of a religious belief. In particular, these concepts allow for the articulation of a purely hypothetical situation, in which counterintuitivity would eventually become entirely vincible, upon the formulation of a scientific theory of everything, capable of grasping the ultimate meaning of reality. There is a common agreement, however, that such expectations amount to no more than sheer illusion.

This agreement builds on a practical and a theoretical premise. The practical premise was clearly stated by Albert Einstein who was deeply convinced that science unveils only a very small part of the vastness and complexity of the physical reality, while most of it will always remain a profound mystery. To put things succinctly, nature has sufficient amount of novelties in stock to generate counterintuitivity for many generations of researchers to come. It is not surprising that Richard Swinburne has revamped the argument from design by claiming that the abstract laws of physics call for an intentional agency to explain their origin.

The theoretical premise was clarified by Michael Heller, who pointed to three irremovable gaps in knowledge that cannot be patched up with the scientific inquiry: The ontological, the epistemological and the axiological. In case of the ontological gap, one asks the Leibnizian question of why there exists something rather than nothing – while following Einstein, the epistemological gap prompts the question of why the Universe is rational, namely, why its laws assume their particular form. Since the pertinent answers fall outside the competence of science, the problem of the ultimate origin of the structuring of the Universe will never be scientifically resolved, although it may shift to a very abstract level as evidenced by the highly-advanced formalisms of the contemporary physical theories.

Inasmuch as the development of science is an objective process of departing from intuitions proper to the folk ontology, what truly counts for the formation of beliefs in the causal activity of intentional agencies is how the human mind responds to this development. It turns out that this response reveals two constituents. They were pointed out by Barrett, as he commented on the very process of the human mind being confronted with the outcomes of the theory of evolution: “we do not simply outgrow the tendency to see the purpose in the world but have to learn to override it.”

He rests this statement on extensive empirical research, revealing that the folk ontology intuitions remain operative even in conditions of high level of scientific literacy. Consequently, these intuitions remain permanently invincible, whereby the efficacy of beliefs, useful in making sense out of routine events in real-time thinking, is assured. What is remarkable at this point is how well the human mind is actually sealed off from the possibility of conquering all counterintuitivity: Should the intuitive conceptual biases be ever overcome and should the folk ontology ever catch up with the actual state of the art in science, it is unlikely that nature itself will ever run out of surprises. And even if it finally did, the irremovable gaps will ultimately enter in and terminate all scientific inquiry.

The specificity of the mechanism of the natural selection that has been addressed at the beginning of this article points to another aspect of the invincibility of the inference of the intelligent designer’s authorship of the ordering in the Universe. As it has been already explained, this mechanism executes a short-sighted ad hoc strategy of imperfect adjustments to the existing structures to secure their proper adaptation to the environment’s fluctuations.

Since ordering does not seem to be manifest to perception in such an instance, HADD should not fire and the activity of an intentional agent should not be detected. On the other hand, however, the detection of imperfections of the evolutionary outcomes does rely on the knowledge of rather advanced biology, unavailable at the time when William Payley formulated his famous claims. Therefore, it seems justified to expect that these imperfections will not significantly obstruct the activity of the scientifically uninformed intuitions, especially that the theory of dissipative systems, based on the deterministic chaos, yields rational explanation of their origin.

In Connection With Religion

Although the contemporary ID doctrine does not reveal an explicitly religious agenda, it is hard to disentangle this doctrine from its theological significance. After all, the representation of God the Creator as an intelligent designer entered the theological thought already in the Middle Ages, through the formulation of the teleological argument for the existence of God.

Later on, for instance, the explanation of the complexity of living organisms, given in the 18th-century by William Payley, directly involved God as the principal author of the ordering of the Universe. It also seems quite obvious that many of the ID supporters, including Behe and Dembski, aimed at creating a new intellectual framework in which the prevalent scientistic attitude could be overcome and the mind of a contemporary scientifically-oriented believer reopened for the perception of the supernatural.

Consequently, the appraisal of the ID doctrine with the tools of the cognitive science of religion will not be complete, unless the impact of the presented outcomes on the formation of the religious belief is at least briefly addressed.

Barrett has drawn up the following cognitive distinction between natural religion and theology: “there is a difference between what people tend to believe in an automatic, day-to-day sort of way, and what they believe when they stop to reflect and systematically figure out what they do and do not believe.” This means that the human mind makes use of two incompatible representations of the divine: The intuitive and the theological.

Since the intuitive representation is inferentially rich and its activation occurs quickly and unconsciously, it ensures that the thought processes, with its use, guarantee immediate inferential power, thereby securing the execution of religiosity in real-time mode. The theological representation, on the other hand, is abstract, with its activation occurring slowly and consciously in a reflective mode of religious thinking. As Barrett frequently stresses, it demands an elaborate institutional scaffolding in the form of the educational institutions to provide proper instruction.

As applied to the ID doctrine, Barrett’s distinction of religious beliefs into natural religion and theology clearly supports the invulnerability of the intuitive belief in the purposefulness of ordering in the Universe to its natural explanation, by means of the evolutionary scenarios.

In light of this, it seems rational to propose that the religiously interpreted ID doctrine can be reasonably justified, only in the mode of natural religion, as it serves to sustain the belief in God as the Creator of the Universe. There is no doubt that this belief is central to any religion that attributes the origin and the existence of the Universe to the causal power of the pertinent deity. Moreover, the intuitive character of the belief in the divine design of the ordering in the Universe makes this belief permanently accessible to believers in real-time thinking. As a result, religiosity can be continuously exercised without the need to resort to elaborate reasonings to substantiate its claims.

Concluding Remarks

The analysis of the doctrine of Intelligent Design, with the tools of the cognitive science of religion, has demonstrated that the human mind exhibits a marked preference towards the intuitive (non-reflective) acceptance of an intentional agency, that is a designer, as the author of the ordering of the Universe.

What is most striking, however, is that this belief seems to reveal an unusual immunity to the development of science, despite science gradually invalidating ID’s central claims, by showing that what is intuitively attributed to the activity of a designer turns out to be the result of the workings of the laws of nature. Such a state of affairs gives a clear explanation for the persistence of the ID doctrine, even in the scientifically literate circles. In brief, intuitions are extremely hard to be dispensed with. An important cognitive factor which discredits the ID doctrine is the nature of HADD itself.

Since this cognitive mechanism relies on the error management strategy, it yields no insight into the epistemic value of this belief. In short, this not a truth-tracking process, and it is likely to generate false positives. It is additionally confirmed by the fact that HADD was proposed on the basis of a specially constructed ancestral environment, in which its activity had been adaptively advantageous.

It remains beyond doubt that contemporary humans, who are scientifically literate, do not populate such environments. De Cruz and De Smedt confirm this difficulty when they state that “one cannot draw straightforward conclusions from evolutionary origins to epistemic justifications.” These considerations seem to lead to an inescapable conclusion that the ID doctrine is entirely unscientific, for it fools its supporters into mythology.

Such a drastic claim can be somewhat alleviated, as one takes into account the thermodynamic argument of why the human mind posits a designer, as it perceives ordered structures. Contrary to HADD, the mechanism involved relies on the second law of thermodynamics, which is a well-established law of nature, whereby the corresponding mental representations may refract some truth on what the world really is. As has been already indicated, an intelligent designer may be a part of what constitutes folk psychology. Consequently, the concept of the intelligent designer can be applied to formulate positive theological statements concerning the nature of supernatural reality.

Following the precepts of negative theology, however, such predication occurs metaphorically only due to the radical disproportion between the perfection and infinity of God and the finiteness of the human conceptual means that are at man’s disposal. The representation of God as the Creator in the form of the intelligent designer can serve only as the metaphor of God’s creative power to sustain the intuitive belief and cannot be used to formulate any literal theological statements on the nature of the divine act of creation.

Wojciech P. Grygiel is at the Department of Philosophy, The Pontifical University of John Paul II, Kraków, Copernicus Center for the Interdisciplinary Studies. He is also a member of the Saint Peter Priesthood. This article appears courtesy of Scientia et Fides.

The image shows, “The Ancient of Days,” a watercolor-etching by William Blake, painted 1794.

Only The Mother Of God

The first time I offered prayers to Mary I had a panic attack – literally. I was in college and my best friend had become Roman Catholic. We argued a bit, and he won (mostly). It resulted in my return to Anglicanism, to the “high” side. So, like a good high churchman, I got a rosary and a book, and started my prayers. Then came the panic attack.

Many Protestants are viscerally opposed to Catholicism. It’s in their heart and bones. I had no idea at the time that my bones (and heart) were as firmly orange as they seemed to be (let the Irish explain). My experience showed me otherwise. But, theology wins. I spent the next nine months reading about Marian devotion and early Christian practice. After that long “cooling-off” period, I picked up my rosary and gave it another try. No panic. I’ve never looked back.

Western devotions to Mary have forms that differ from Orthodox practices, and I’m not at all sure that the Western, Catholic understanding is the same (I’ll admit that I don’t know). My Anglican use of the rosary and devotion to Mary, which largely followed Catholic practice, certainly made my conversion to Orthodoxy ever so much easier. Indeed, her presence in the text of an Orthodox service far exceeds anything you’ll ever see in Rome.

The Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God is grounded in its understanding of salvation. As such, the veneration of Mary is an expression of the most foundational doctrine of the faith. This is generally misunderstood by the non-Orthodox for the simple reason that they do not understand salvation itself. Salvation is about a union or communion with God. It is a participation in the very life of God. We were created for this communion, breathed into us in the act of our creation. Through sin, we have broken that communion and become subject to death and disintegration.

Christ, in becoming a human being, united Himself to our human nature. He suffered death and was buried. But in His death, because He is also God, He tramples down death and rises from the tomb. Our human nature is raised with Him. When we are Baptized, the Scriptures say we are Baptized “into His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection.” In Holy Communion, we eat His very Body and drink His Blood, a true communion and participation in His life.

When this fundamental doctrine is understood, Mary’s role in history and her place in the Church become clear. Christ does not enter her womb as though it were a borrowed space. The Creed says, “He took flesh of the Virgin Mary.” Christ’s humanity is not a separate creation, but “bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh.” She is truly His mother.

The Scriptures recognize this in various ways. In particular, when Mary brings the Christ Child to the Temple on the 40th day, the Prophet Simeon prophesies the coming sufferings of Christ and adds, “…and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” This is far more than saying, “It will make you unhappy.” In Christ’s suffering on the Cross, Mary suffers as well. This is because of the peculiar union that was their relationship from the beginning.

Christians describe the life of salvation as “beholding Christ face to face.” Mary would have done this quite literally numerous times a day for nearly three years as she nursed Him. In St. John’s gospel, at the Wedding in Cana, there is a level of communication between mother and Son that transcends words.

At the wedding feast, she comes to her Son and says, “They have no wine.” She does not ask Him anything. His response is frequently misinterpreted. He says, in the Greek: “Tί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί,” (Jn. 2:4). (“What is this to me and you?”) It is a very strange phrase in the Greek, but is a direct quote from the widow of Zarephath when she is speaking to Elijah about the death of her son (1 Kings 17:18). Christ is warning His mother that “it is not my time.” But, if He acts in helping with this wedding and its wine, it will set in motion something that cannot be stopped – His kairos – His time. And when His time comes, she will be like the widow of Zarephath, a widow whose son is dead. All of this is contained in this tiny conversation of but a few words.

Her response is equally terse, “Do whatever He tells you.” This is similar to her first words to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” She is ready for what will take place, including its most fearful consequences.

But all of this can only be rightly understood if we remember the nature of the union between mother and Son. It is also a union that will be our own salvation. Christ has become what we are by nature, that we might become what he is by grace. This is the great “exchange.”

Orthodox prayer gives expression to this communion. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays within us saying, “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Those words are the words of the Son (the one says, “Abba”). We do not pray as strangers, but as members of the household, now emboldened to speak with the very voice of the Son of God. It is this same voice that speaks of Mary as “Mother,” and gives her honor. That honor, or veneration, is the expression of love. Just as she loves Him, so she loves us.

In my experience, devotion to the Mother of God comes very slowly for converts to the faith. Five hundred years of Protestant thought have created a Christianity in which Mary has little place other than on Christmas cards and in badly produced movies. English translations of the Scriptures often butcher Marian passages conveying false images.

The Wedding at Cana passage cited above is frequently rendered: “What do I have to do with you, woman?” which is simply inaccurate. It gives the impression of disrespect, as though Mary were being a bother to her Son. What is deeply lacking is the spiritual consciousness rooted in salvation through union with Christ. None of the doctrines expressed in the Great Seven Ecumenical Councils make any sense apart from that awareness. Put simply, it is how both the Scriptures and the early Fathers understand our salvation. Union (communion, participation) is the fundamental grammar of Christian teaching.

When this grammar is properly grasped, it becomes clear that we cannot speak of Christ apart from Mary (nor Mary apart from Christ). By the same token, we cannot speak of Christ apart from the Church, nor the Church apart from Christ. We are told in 1 Cor. 12:21 that the “head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you,” and this in the very passage in which we are told that Christ is the “head of the body (the Church).” We cannot speak of one member of the Body apart from all the others, for the life of each is the life of all and the life of all is the life of each.

In our devotional life, this is expressed in the communion of saints, our prayers that gather all together in union with Christ: “Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed lady, Theotokos, and ever-virgin Mary, and all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

On the personal level, the experience of the Church has taught us private devotions as well. Within those, we begin to discover the mystical bonds that only such devotions reveal. Years ago, in a reference I have long since forgotten, I read a quote in which St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “There are things about Jesus you cannot know until His mother tells them to you.”

This part of the Orthodox life is difficult to describe. It is a perception of Christ, though with a greater fullness, one that extends into the persons of the saints. In Mary, that person encompasses an intimacy with Christ that is without equal. In my own experience, this intimacy includes the depths of her maternal love, for her Son, and for all creation.

The absence of Marian devotion and awareness has created a Christianity with an absence of the feminine. I do not suggest that Mary is a cipher for an abstract universal, or of a “divine femininity,” but it is simply bizarre to have a Christology that speaks of the “humanity” of Christ that is somehow devoid of a human mother (for all intents and purposes). Orthodox Christology begins its formal expression in the 3rd Ecumenical Council in which the largest and most central question was Mary’s title of “Theotokos” (Birth-Giver of God). Classical Christology began with consideration of Mary.

The most egregious example I have ever encountered of anti-Marian sentiment is a treatment in which she is seen as a mere “container” for Christ. It is an insult to every woman who has ever borne a child.

I offer no speculation as to the damage done to Western culture by a distorted Christology. Secularists would argue that Christology has nothing to do with our cultural constructs: such is the ignorance of our own foundations. Secular modernity is built on the foundation of a distorted version of Christianity. We are children who deny our parents, imagining that we have created ourselves.

Now that is a cause for panic. Holy Mother of God, pray for 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 the play of light on a mural of the Virgin and Christ, inside the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey). Photo credit: Dr. Shafi Ahmad.

A Matter Of Truth

Surveys in business magazines and management books confirm that the personal characteristic employees most value in their employer is Honesty. Above all employees want to be dealt with truthfully. The same is true of employers.

What they most want from their employees is the assurance that they can believe what their employees say and trust what they do.

When single people describe the perfect partner, they dream of meeting and someday marrying; they inevitably say they want an Honest man or woman who can be trusted in every way. They can’t conceive of a marriage based on any other foundation than absolute trustworthiness.

Friends who have walked through life together for many years often name Honesty as one of the keys to the success of their relationship. We made a commitment to never lie to one another they say, and we never have.

In an age and a culture in which lies, fake news, and deceit are common currency of news articles, movies, talk shows and politics; the pursuit of Honesty in personal life and relationships sometimes seems like a lonely and outdated endeavour. You need to put a spin on things. Distort it so that it seems like the truth.

Of course, public displays of dishonesty are not the only sources of our repugnance. Most of us have been betrayed or lied to at some point in our lives in a brazen hurtful way, where recovery has been difficult.

Do you remember the first time you were betrayed or lied to? The first time a confidence was broken or the truth twisted in order to hurt you. I am sure you remember the experience in vivid detail. Did it make you want to withdraw from the human race or scream out in anger? If it’s any consolation God feels that way as well.

The ninth commandment says, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.” In other words, don’t Lie. Don’t distort the truth. Don’t use your words to play around with reality.

God knew from the beginning of time that without a total commitment to truth telling; marriages and families would disintegrate, friendships would disappear, business dealings would fall apart, churches would be split by divisions, governments would not be able to govern. The very fabric of relationships and society would unravel.

Throughout the Bible we are called to the standard of truth telling, but nowhere more graphically than in the book of Proverbs, where a man ‘with a corrupt mouth’ is called a scoundrel and villain. Proverbs 6: 12. And where the suggested antidote to lying is that a perverse tongue will be cut out. Dishonesty is bad stuff, says the writer of these proverbs, and we need to get rid of it; whatever it takes.

One reason the writer of these proverbs spoke so strongly against a corrupt mouth is that he knew how deeply dishonesty disrupts one’s relationship with God. The Lord detests lying lips. That’s pretty strong stuff. To detest something is repulsive. Its abhorrent.

Seldom does the Bible use such strong language than this to describe God’s response to sinful behaviour. God simply detests lying. It like saying; it turns his stomach; it makes him vomit. That’s why he cannot maintain a relationship with a person who lies.

The reason God detests dishonesty so much is due to the second consequence; it destroys other people. Proverbs 15 verse 4: “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life; but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

She promised to be faithful, sobs a devastated husband who has just learned that his wife wasn’t faithful. He said, he would never come home again drunk cries a teenager reeling from the rages of his alcoholic father. He promised me that he would never place another bet, as the wife checks her bank account. I finished the job because the contractor gave me his word that he would pay me, but he didn’t. Now how can I pay my workers? I transferred my savings into the account that would give me 8 per cent interest. The company left no forwarding address.

On and on it goes; people’s spirits crushed by dishonesty and deceit. I suspect that if successive Governments wanted to save billions through austerity measures, they should launch a major offensive outlining what dishonesty and deceit costs the tax payer every year. If people complied by being honest in their financial dealings The national debt would be eradicated in twenty years.

The main reason why Greece is in financial meltdown is because the majority of its tax paying citizens refuse by deceit to submit any income tax returns. In fact, it’s seen as a badge of honour to get away with it. Children are taught to do the exact same thing and follow their parents’ example. And they wonder why they are in the state they are in.

I know of several people and perhaps you do as well who lament that life is not working well for them. They are left with broken dreams, faded hopes and thwarted goals. However, in many cases, if you trace their disappointment back far enough you discover a trail of dishonesty.

It may have started with a slight departure from the truth; but all too often that first dishonest step leads to deeper forms of deceitfulness and from there to downright lies. Along the way, the dishonest person begins to experience the inevitable breakdown of his or her relationships with God and with others; whether in the home, at school, on the building site, in the office, or at church.

It’s easy to place the blame on other people or on forces beyond one’s control when the real cause of trouble is one’s own careless or malicious mishandling of truth. Have you told any lies lately? Any harmless ones. We’ll do lunch sometime. I’ll pay you back next month. Can I have a minute of your time. My door is always open. Will phone you tomorrow.

Do you ever exaggerate the truth? Tell a story and put an extra spin on it. Describe a personal achievement in inflated terms? Do you ever minimize the truth? Confess to a sin less serious than the one you committed? Do you ever twist the truth to make someone look bad? The list is endless.

Have you ever described another person’s words or actions without explaining their context and thereby made that person appear stupid or cruel? Have you ever got yourself into a jam and then told a whopper to get yourself out of it? The wife was driving the car, so she gets the penalty points.

Do you remember the last time you lied? Most of us feel a little queasiness in our stomachs or a little heat on the back of our necks. But the worst thing is that we don’t know what to do with our eyes.

We have only two choices; to look the person we’re lying to straight in the eye or to look at the floor.

Lying is a messy business. It’s always going to be a messy business because we’re created in the image of a truth telling God.

At the core of God’s character is an essence of purity that renders him incapable of dishonesty. Wherever Jesus went, he often spoke to the crowds saying; I tell you the truth. I tell you the truth. As he did so he was holding himself up for public examination and scrutiny. Check it out and see if there is anything incorrect, I am telling you. That was the undercurrent of his message.

Could anyone point the finger at Jesus. No not one. The closest any of our politicians come to this; is when they are being interviewed and an awkward question is thrown at them, they say; let me be clear about this. But it’s not quite the same thing. Or if a politician is asked, “do you condemn IRA or IS violence?” ‘Do you condemn anti-Semitism?” Some will say blandly, “I condemn all violence.” But they still have not answered the question. They are not telling the truth.

Because of the piece of that purity which God has placed in our own core, it will always feel unnatural for the majority of people to lie. There are of course professional liars; spin doctors and the like; but God has given up on them. They are destined for destruction according to scripture.

There will always be warning bells and whistles going off in our minds and that sick feeling in our stomachs, because we were not created to lie. The only reasonable response for any of us is to stop lying; completely. No more half-truths, no more exaggeration, no more verbal twisting of reality.

No more only telling part of the story. For those of us ready and willing to make a firm commitment to honesty the book of Proverbs offers some refreshing practical hints for our journey from deceitfulness to truth telling. What do we do about it?

The Bible says; If you want to sin less with your words, then talk less. Proverbs 10.19” “When words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.” I wish I could meet the man who wrote that and have a chat with him.

If you have a propensity to talk a lot, the facts state you will lie more. Generally speaking, if you talk less, the less you will lie. The less you talk the less you will exaggerate. The less you talk the less you say things you will regret. The less you talk the fewer promises you make, that you can’t keep.
Proverbs says, “the heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.”

The wisdom of Proverbs also tells us something important; that we don’t have to participate in every conversation. You don’t have to chip in. You don’t have to express every thought that you hear or comes to mind. But we do have to pause and carefully consider our words before we speak.

When we are writing a letter on the computer there is a spell check. If you spell a word incorrectly it will be underlined in red. Your attention is drawn to it to correct it. Well Proverbs says that we have to have a lie check feature, a little switch that is flipped on just before we open our mouths.

When our ideas and words are forming in our brains, it will ask us two things; are our forthcoming words necessary; and are they true. If they’re not we should not spend more than a minute thinking about them.

There is so much we could say in this area of truth telling. One more thing. There is a potential downside to all this. Truth telling is not always easy especially in the age of obsessive PC correctness. People are sacked in jobs for telling the truth; whistle blowers. Others are shunned or passed over for promotion. ‘We don’t rock the boat in this company’.

We are called to avoid unnecessary words, or to keep silent rather than utter untruths. But at the same time when a given situation demands that a word of truth be spoken, we are commanded to speak it without holding back, even if it costs us dearly.

When it comes to saying the hard truths that certain people, need to hear, we find ourselves hesitating. At least I do. Such as the proverbial round peg in a square hole comes to mind. Someone who is doing a job they are basically useless at and at the same time they are keeping back the best person for it.

Why do we stay silent and hold back from telling the truth? And how you say it; how you go about it. It’s not easy. You can be seen as always being critical, always on the lookout for mistakes or self-righteous.

The person with the pushy attitude, who succeeds wherever they go in getting everyone’s backs up without even trying. Better to say nothing in case he is offended. We are afraid to speak the truth. What is wrong with me? A close relation who hasn’t a clue about money matters and who is utterly unreliable and reckless. Just leave it. Someone else might say something. What’s the matter with me? There are a million and one scenarios.

Or, you have become acquainted with someone. A decent, kind, hard working person who always sees the good in people. You have numerous conversations with them about all manner of things. But to date you have not had the courage to tell them the most important truth in life; that God loves them and he has opened the gates of heaven to them because of what Jesus did on a cross on their behalf. He died for their sin.

This person told me they do not attend church; yet you have not shared one word with them about the basic truths of the Gospel. What’s the matter with you? Why have you not said anything to them of God’s love and forgiveness.

Well, you know what’s the matter. You shrink back from telling the truth because it might cost you something. It might create discomfort in the relationship. You might be misunderstood or rejected. Heaven forbid that that person would say, stay out of my life, its none of your business. Get lost. Would that really be the end of the world? There is a balance here between peace keeping and truth telling. But most of us, most of the time choose the former.

I silence words of truth because they might create ripples on the pond of my life and I would much prefer to have the seas of tranquillity lapping around me. I want smooth waters; not rough seas. We need to remind ourselves of Proverbs 3 verse 3: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them round your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.”

The writer of Proverbs says cling to the truth and reveal the truth in your marriage, family and friendships.

Have you ever been thankful that at some point in your life someone dared to speak the truth to you and it helped alter the course of your life? I know I have.

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? Do you really know what it means to follow Jesus? Please think carefully about those two questions.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Capture of Christ,” by Guercino, painted in 1621.

The Christian Life: A Three-Dimensional View

But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6: 11-12).

Paul wrote these words to Timothy, his disciple/student, his spiritual son. He repeatedly calls Timothy “son.” Timothy faithfully accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys, but at a certain point when Timothy was 30 or in his mid-thirties, he was appointed to supervise the church at Ephesus. The first letter was about the time he assumed those responsibilities. Timothy was not an Apostle, but he clearly was given a lot of authority by Paul, as well as these two letters of advice and encouragement in the Lord. Many of the directions given to Timothy apply to the clergy and laity of today as well, although some might be seen as Timothy-specific.

He describes to Timothy how he can be “salt and light” (Matthew 5: 13-16), and lead his church to be salt and light. Like Timothy, the Holy Spirit of God calls us and supports us as we strive to be salt and light as we follow Jesus Christ. The above passage is a three-dimensional depiction of how we as faithful Christians can be, and should be

Dimension One: The Bible is filled with virtues. In addition to this list of six virtues in 1 Timothy, there is another list of nine virtues in Galatians 5:22: Love, faith, and gentleness are found in both lists. However, in addition, the Galatians list has joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, and self-control.

Righteousness is the first virtue on the list. Righteousness is inevitably linked with holiness, and holiness is linked with God. If one is an atheist and deems themselves as a “good person” that is not the same, and no atheist would refer to himself or herself that way, as a holy person. The Lord said, “Be ye holy even as I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16, Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8) We may be starting to see that there is a vocabulary that the non-Christians do not ever use, and increasingly are omitted from the vocabulary and thoughts of Christians: Righteousness, holy, evil, sin, abomination. These words come under the heading of religious exaggerations or hyperbole.

Today’s mantra in our unbelieving society is that it is sufficient to be a “good person.” Yet, we know that we must strive for righteousness. However, the idea of being right with God and thus “right” in a bigger sense is considered up-tight by many. We are apt to be told that that is just our interpretation, or the Bible was written by people who were limited in their perspective by the time and place when and where they lived or it may have been believed by many and for many years, but that does not make it “right” in any ultimate sense.

Righteousness and holiness are repudiated by so many because they entail accepting the words “sin” and “evil.” I once referred to “our sick and sinful society” in a column in our union newsletter, and one of my colleagues, a woman with a Ph.D. in microbiology and a sociable and pleasant lady, came to my office to complain about my using the word “sinful.” “There’s no such thing as sin,” she said. I asked her, “What would you say about people who have intimate relations with animals,” and she replied “different strokes for different folks.” Then I asked her if sin could be applied to the kidnapping and murder of a four year old child, and she replied, “It’s a crime, but not a sin.” Are you, dear reader, stunned? Well, there are millions of people, even in churches who, tragically, think the same way.

Dimension Two: Paul tells Timothy and us to “Fight the good fight of faith.” Very often faith is portrayed – even by the Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kirkegaard as simply belief, a purely subjective attitude or belief in an eternal, changeless, perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God. By, referring to fighting the good fight, Paul not only sees faith in an active mode, but also emphasizes that it is public and associated with confession. It is not private and subjective.

Faith is our public testimony and manifestation of our faith, and of those virtues or the virtues in Galatians 5:22 that are the expressions of our faith. Confession here is not going into a confessional booth, but of exhibiting Christian virtues in a lost and fallen world! Then Paul really shakes up our 20th and 21st century sensibilities by pointing to Christ before Pilate as the pinnacle example or manifestation of fighting the good fight of faith.

In Matthew, Jesus is asked if He is King of the Jews and answers, “It is as you say.” (Matthew 27:11) He is listed with the same reply in Mark 15: 2 and Luke 23: 3, but in John, Jesus replies, “Are you speaking for yourself or did others tell you about me?”(John 18:33-34) A few verses later in the Gospel according to John, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you a king then?” And Jesus answers, “You say rightly…I came into this world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

Jesus’ good confession was not His many words, but his firmness in silence or in few words in the face of great personal danger, in a public place where this firmness and/or silence could be witnessed by others, and by His clear attestation of Himself as the Jewish Messiah (who was prophesied to be the universal Messiah of both Jews and Gentiles).

So. we are to fight the good fight of faith not by much speaking, but by holding firm whether to public ridicule or public threats or public slander or public opprobrium… matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Even if our firmness or our faith is perceived as irrelevant by others. When I was teaching in a public high school, one of my co-teachers called across to me in the teachers’ lounge. “Mr. Ludwig,” he called out. “Is God a he or a she?” I answered “God is a he, but not in the sense that you or I are ‘he’s’. He knows everything about us, things we would be ashamed to repeat in this room, but He still loves us, and his forgiveness is there for us if we would turn to Him and receive Him and the forgiveness He offers.”

Dimension Three: Paul tells us and Timothy to lay hold of eternal life. It cannot be seen or heard. We can’t take a weekend flight into the invisible heavenly realm. We have had reports of near death or death experiences related by people who died and were resuscitated. However this Scripture says that the heavenly realm has not been seen, nor can a person see it. So please greet such reports with a dose of healthy skepticism.

The King of kings bestows immortality with God himself. He dwells in unapproachable light. We cannot see Him, but we can hear him. God’s Ten Words were heard at Mt. Sinai (Mt. Horeb). But hearing Him was overwhelming for the Israelites and they cried out for relief from “hearing” (Deuteronomy 4:9-13; 4: 32-36; 5: 1-4; Exodus 20:19). With the hearing of God’s voice so painful, and being in His presence so impossible, how then can we lay hold of eternal life? On Earth He has given us His Word that we might hear Him without immediate terror; yet, we are to go forth in response to His Word in “fear and trembling.”

Further, the Word was made flesh in the person of Christ Jesus, second person of the Holy Trinity. Judgment awaits those who are not living in and through His Word. Here is where we understand that we must take up our Cross daily, deny ourselves, and follow Him to the very end. Only covered by the Blood of the Lamb can we hope to stand in God’s full presence.

Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but a response of God’s people to His love and faithfulness. We appropriate Christ by faith, not by our good deeds. That is why application of and obedience to a list of virtues can never save our souls. Yet, when we are saved and lay hold of eternal life by faith, we then are called upon to walk on a path of righteousness or holiness by implementing the virtues found in the Bible.

Jeffrey Ludwig is presently a lecturer in philosophy in New York City and has taught ethics, introduction to philosophy, American philosophy, and philosophy of education. He also spent many years teaching history, economics, literature, and writing. For ten years he served as pastor of Bible Christian Church; and his theological focus is on the five solae. He has published three books, the most recent, The Liberty Manifesto, being a series of essays about the importance of reasserting liberty as a social, political, economic, and theological value. His other two books are The Catastrophic Decline of America’s Public High Schools: New York City, A Case Study and Memoir of a Jewish American Christian.

The image shows, “The Disciples in Emmaus,” by Abraham Bloemaert, painted in 1622.

Are Pandemics Evil?

Recent conversations have brought up questions about good and evil, particularly in the natural world. When the world is locked down in response to a virus, it is easy to wonder about the nature of things. Can a virus be called “evil?” Is that the right word for it? In truth, we use words in a very loose manner in our common speech.

We say “evil” about many things, without thinking carefully (or meaning to) about what we’re actually saying. This changes, however, when we attempt to do theology. For theology is always something that involves words, and often turns on the right use of the right word for the right thing. Classically, some of the largest controversies turned on a single iota.

We do not speak with precision in our daily life, and it is silly to expect that we should. But, it is also good to pause, now and again, to think carefully about our speech and what we mean. This article is a small attempt to speak carefully about the nature of good and evil and how Orthodox theology, at its most careful, speaks of them. I’ll also try to define my terms with some care. Here goes.

The Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians through Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor, belonged to a school of speech that took great care to hammer away at certain terms, reaching consensus on use and meaning. The seven Great Councils all belong to a single vocabulary project that, over time, developed a working consensus on terms and their application. Some of those words are key:

Being
Nature
Essence
Substance

Person
Hypostasis

Existence
Subsistence

Will
Energy

Movement
Change

This list could be expanded even further, but I’ll stop with this. There are some fundamental ideas in all of this. First, and foremost, is the understanding of “being.”

Being, like goodness, and beauty, is foundational. Everything that exists, apart from God, is created out of nothing. And everything(!) that is created is good. God is not the author of evil. Thus, nothing can be said to be “evil” in its actual being. And here we have to think carefully about our language.

When reading classical theology, “essence” or “ousia” or “substance” all refer to the actual being of something – the simple reality that it is. Further, the word “nature,” or “physis,” is used to describe the “what-ness” of something. Thus, a tree has the nature of a tree; a rock has the nature of a rock; an angel has the nature of an angel, etc. If we ask what the “nature” of a tree is, we would answer “to be what a tree is.” A tree is not a rock nor an angel. Again, these are words that describe “being” or “what something is.”

The terms “person” and “hypostatic” are a bit more problematic. For nothing simply “is.” Everything that exists, exists in a particular manner. The tree outside my window is a unique tree and not just the essence of treeness. This expresses something of the uniqueness of what exists. It not only has being (essence), but a particular being (hypostasis).

When speaking of human beings, “hypostasis” or “person” have a quality that is more than mere particularity. There is a relational aspect of our unique existence. I am not fully “who” I am except as I am also in communion with others (more or less).

Related to this, with regard to all things, are the words “existence” and “subsistence.” Something not only has “being,” but the actual being it has is expressed in some manner that is describable. My “existence” encompasses everything that I am doing and every way that I function. Thus, if something is “existential,” it is a matter of the basic expression of my being in a way that can be described and experienced.

Two additional words are quite interesting: “will” and “energy.” Interestingly, the “will” in its most proper meaning, is a faculty and property of the nature (our essence or being). It is a nature’s drive to naturally be what it is created to be. Trees never want to be anything else. A virus wants what a virus wants (by nature). It does not do something else. You can count on it.

Human beings, however, have a different experience of the will, a consequence of our brokenness and lack of communion with God. We have a natural will (the will of our nature), that always tends towards our proper end, that is, what we were created to do and be. But there is what St. Maximus termed the “gnomic” will – a sort of experience of choosing.

That will is not governed by our nature but has a kind of unguided freedom. Generally, when we speak of the “will,” we mean this “gnomic” will. The very fact that we have one is not natural. It is unnatural and is a cause of great suffering in our lives. Christian ascesis, to a large extent, concerns itself with the healing of this disruption in our makeup.

Indeed, according to the authoritative teaching of St. Maximus, Christ Himself did not have a “gnomic” will – a separated, fallen, choosing sort of confusion about His actions. He acted with complete integrity and union as a human being (united with His Divine nature). This can quickly become a very complicated discussion, so I will leave it at that. I will say that we often speak about the human will and human freedom in a manner that ignores this distinction and leads to some very false assumptions about what it means to be human.

For what it’s worth, we see a somewhat similar kind of integrity in the actions and life of the Theotokos. But that’s for another day.

“Energy” is a very interesting word. For years I imagined it in terms of physics, thinking it described some sort of force emanating from a being. However, it’s far more simple. “Energies” are our actions, our “doings.” With God, His actions and His being are one. God is what He is and He is what He does. We’re a bit more problematic.

Our doings are often in contradiction to our being. For example, anything we do that is a movement or action against true existence (our being) is a contradiction of who and what we are. Murder is an action that is inherently evil. Note, it’s not the “being” that is evil, but the misuse of the being in its evil actions.

The Fathers (particularly the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus, etc.) view the creation as inherently good, which is also the same thing as saying that it exists and has being. But they do not see the creation as having the fullness of the Good.

Everything that exists is created to move towards union and full participation in the Good (God Himself). Creation is dynamic and moves and changes. Sin and evil are a deviation from this dynamic. The path the Fathers describe is: being, well-being, eternal being. Being is a given. Our present life should be an increasing acquisition of well-being. Our final goal is full participation in eternal being, the very life of God.

I have found it very helpful to keep all of this in mind when thinking about sin and evil. Orthodoxy makes a strong link between sin and death. Sin is a movement, a misdirection, a drive and direction towards non-being. It displays as murder, lies, deceit, etc., everything that moves us away from the path to God. It is, however, a false path, and not the thing itself.

We may say that a man is evil, but, if we are precise, we must say that his actions (energies) are evil. It was certain errors in the West that led some to speak of human beings as totally depraved and actually evil – or, in Luther’s phrase, “a mass of damnation.” That imprecise language did much harm.

What about the things in the world that are called “natural evil?” This would include events (earthquakes, floods, plagues, etc.). What is “evil” about such things? There is nothing inherently “evil” in the shifting of planetary plates (earthquakes). It’s what planets like ours do. It creates continents, mountains, etc. It is normal. We use the word “evil” in describing these things because of the suffering and death that comes in their wake. But earthquakes are not death and suffering itself, nor is a virus.

Sometimes people speak of the world as “fallen,” and go on to describe the world as therefore bad or evil in some manner. “Fallen” is not a term found in the Scriptures, and can sometimes be a bit problematic. St. Paul speaks far more carefully about creation’s problematic state. He says that it was made “subject to futility.”

What he meant by that was that creation (like human beings) was made subject to death, decay, and destruction. It does not mean that creation itself is death, decay, and destruction. Those things are a sort of anti-creation, part of that drive towards non-existence. But they are not part of the natural order itself. They are its destruction.

The problem is death, not creation. Christ’s relationship with creation is interesting. He is asleep in a boat during a storm, unperturbed. The disciples are afraid (they fear death). They wake Him up. He speaks to the winds and the sea and says, “Peace. Be still.”

I suppose He went back to sleep after that. There was nothing “evil” about the winds and the sea, though they could well have sunk the boat and drowned the disciples. Christ “rebukes” fevers. He tells demons what to do. He withers a fig tree.

In Christ, we see a foretaste, or a small glimpse of humanity and creation in its right order. St. Paul describes creation as “groaning like a woman in child-birth” longing for the restoration of this relationship in its fullness. He calls it the “glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

St. Dionysius the Areopagite’s The Divine Names, has a very dense passage on all of this, in chapter 4. He uses a very interesting verb in describing evil, borrowing from an earlier usage of St. Gregory of Nyssa. The word is paryphistimi (παρυφιστημι – a sort of “standing beside”) which essentially equates with the noun, παρυποστασις. It is an attempt to describe the “parasitic” character of evil. It doesn’t exist in and of itself, but is spun out of the will of sentient creatures.

In dealing with the so-called “problem of evil,” it is important to place it squarely in the realm of God’s providential care for all creation. The death and decay to which we are subject certainly have the capacity to draw us towards non-being. Conversely, they also draw us toward repentance, turning towards God and the path of life.

We are not dualists. The battle between good and evil is not a level playing field. The whole of the field is the arena of our salvation and the working out of the whole of creation’s union with God. Even death has a strange place in all of this.

In Christ’s Pascha we hear echoes of this place. Christ tramples down death by death. The very thing that is our enemy is the same thing used to destroy our enemy. It is the ultimate statement of God’s good will triumphing in all things.

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee before His face!

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 image shows Christ healing the Leper; a mosaic in the church of Monreale.

Why I Believe

Many think of Jesus as just an idea or as an interesting person. The Apostle John tells us to look at the signs. What direction do they point? Believe. Believe in Jesus who is the object of our faith.

The God of the bible is not what many sometimes think he is. For many of us God is like the Loch Ness Monster. Some people claim to have caught glimpses of him. But when you compare their stories, it turns out that they all have slightly different ideas about what they think they’ve seen.

Devotees have trawled the Loch with submarines and sonar equipment. Miles of film have been shot and thousands of photographs have been taken in countless attempts to capture conclusive proof of the monster’s existence.

But all we have to go on are a few grainy pictures that are just enough to keep our hopes alive. There is no proof that it exists. But then, there’s no proof that it doesn’t. So, people go on searching. And so, it is with God.

Most of us are open to the idea that there may well be someone out there, like God lurking in the darkest depths of the universe. We are curious about him in much the same way that an adopted child is curious about its biological parents.

We think that if we understood more about him, it might help us to understand more about ourselves. It might help us to fit some of the pieces together. But after years of searching we are like the philosophers; even if there is a God, we can’t know him. Well not really.

Once in a while we may stumble across a footprint, or think we see a flash of a tail. We may have some kind of spiritual experience. But like the Loch Ness monster, God seems to be keeping himself to himself in the depths.

John through his gospel repeatedly claims there is a God who is really out there using the evidence he calls signs. John uses signs for our benefit, but that makes little difference. Because we are a sceptical lot. We don’t put our trust in anyone, only the banks and financial markets.

We have come through the trials and tribulations of life. Family bust ups, divorce, relatives dying of cancer, addictions, wars, rape, lies, environmental carnage, suicide, disease, famine and pestilence to name but a few. Why should we trust someone like God with all this happening? It’s a fair question.

We have seen millions dying of poverty and drought and Islamic State chopping the heads of Christian’s. We want to know why God dosn’t seem to care or act. Why trust him? Maybe when we were younger, we used to be naive thinking that God was watching over us. But now that we have lived a bit we want to know where he was when his world needed him.?

If he cared you’d think he would come out of hiding. You’d think that he would do something to fix a few things and right a few wrongs. How can you trust someone when they don’t seem to be around the neighbourhood? Putting it in a nutshell many believe that God exists, but he is beyond my reach; and of course, there are people who are quite happy to settle for God to remain outside their reach.

The first thing we can say is that God has a face. God is not a person that we devise in our minds. He is the God who really is out there. Some people have pen pals from childhood days. They correspond with them over the years and before Skype was on the go.

As you correspond with them you start to think; I wonder what they look like, what sort of a person are they based on, what they have said about themselves. It’s really a guessing game. To know exactly what they are really like our only hope is for that person to come and make themselves known to us. John in his gospel is telling us that that is exactly what has happened. He sums this up in four words. Four words that show us that the God of the bible was not how I had imagined God to be.

Through Jesus Christ the God who is out there has come knocking on our door. John says; “the word became flesh.” He calls Jesus the word, (logos) because words inform us of who he is. And Jesus speaks to us about who he is and why he has come. Now some of us may think that Jesus is just another in the long list of religious leaders down through the years. But this is what John says about Jesus the Word. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”

What John is telling us is that the story of Jesus did not begin in Bethlehem as some imagine. In the beginning when the world was first created, Jesus was there with God. So, what sort of person would be with God from the beginning of time, space and history. They would have to be God. That’s what John says; “the word was God. Through him all things were made, without him nothing was made that has been made.” The word, Jesus; was not just with God from the beginning watching over everything, it was through him that God made the universe. Jesus created all life species.

From the ant to the elephant, from the shark to the eagle, from the daffodil to the mighty oak. He made life happen. Including forming and shaping us in his image, from the dust of the ground.; to where we will all return.
At a point in history there came a moment in time during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the one who made the stars; became a tiny cell in the womb of an unmarried Jewish girl. This majestic God became flesh and bone. He has a face we can look into.

Jesus is not just one of God’s prophets or spokesmen, Jesus is God who left the splendour and majesty of heaven to come and live on earth for a period of time. Do we believe this so far?

The fact that Jesus is God; he came to us shows us three things about what God is really like. God has a face where the word became flesh. Secondly, he is committed to his creation. When God created the world, he looked at all of it and he said that it was “very good.” There were no imperfections or mistakes. Everything in nature worked together in unison; unlike today.

In the Garden of Eden and across nature there were no pestilences or famines or plagues or disease. It was like the Louis Armstrong song What a Wonderful World. “I see trees of green red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself what a wonderful world.” That’s what it was like.

But as we know sin entered into the world and changed everything. The wonderful world is still wonderful, but it has serious flaws and fault lines that run through it everywhere from top to bottom and from side to side.

The sin we inherited which can be traced back to Adam and Eve is prevalent in each and every human being. To sin is to be human. To be human is to be fallen.

Even though we see the problems we have created all around us and the way and manner in which we have walked out on God; he has not walked out on us. Environmental damage; habitat loss; and the decline in species has been caused by man not by God. God has placed everything on this planet we need although we have to work for it.

The story of the world begins with the creator. John tells us that there is a new beginning for the world and it begins with the creator. God is committed to his creation despite what we see and hear on the news; and bit by bit he will re-create.

The world of science wants to harness God by its formulations and theories, it wants to make God look like a fool and assert its place ahead of God. The machinations of man building the Tower of Babel is a classic example as is the modern-day EU European Union. But God is not an abstract force we can harness like the power of the wind or sea rather he is a person, a face, whom we can love. In other words, relationship is at the very heart of who he is. The Word made his dwelling among us.

When did God previously make his dwelling with his people to show them that he was committed to them? Remember the tabernacle was the tent; the tent of meeting that God told Moses to make when the Israelites were fleeing from Egypt through the desert. It was to be pitched in the centre of the camp as a symbolic reminder that their God was in their midst.

Then there was the pillar of cloud and fire which served as the visible evidence of God’s presence by which he guided them from Egypt to Sinai and then during their years in the wilderness.

By day, God went ahead of the people to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. Not only that Manna and Quail were provided daily by God for over a million people in the middle of a desert. God was there with his people every step of the way. God has come among us, through his Holy Spirit.

So, when we think of God somehow out there in the darkness and depths like the Loch Ness Monster or in the far reaches of the universe we have got it wrong. God comes to us to search for us and rescue us. The good shepherd who comes looking for his sheep.

In the bible there is no record of the lost shepherd being tracked down by the conscientious sheep. It’s always the other way around. We are the ones who have messed up and God is the one who comes looking for us. And when he comes, he comes to us not as a force that we are to harness, but with a face we are to love because of his commitment to us. This is good news for the world. Jesus came into the world as the light of the world to shine in the darkness.

The world is a dark foreboding place. The days are evil. God knows this. He has come to make sense of our lives and give us purpose and direction.
If there is anyone who can give us the right answers it has got to be God.
The world is in a mess; Europe is in a mess. God has the answers but we prefer to do things our way.

When God comes with the answers, he doesn’t just give us some carefully worded ones he becomes one of us. It would have been very easy for God to give us a written description of him and what he does and doesn’t do. But that would have been a cop out. God had a far better way. He came as the word made flesh and lived among people. This is what God is like. His love took him to us.

Part of our history going back to the middle ages portrays Jesus as a ghostly pale almost spectre like figure with a dinner plate stuck to the back of his head. It is often a great painting by one of the masters but it is poor theology, because it makes Jesus seem less than human. John talks about a God who became flesh. Flesh gets hungry and tired. It aches, it cries, it gets hurt. God became one of us in every way yet was without sin. Are you misunderstood by the people close to you? Jesus has been there.

Are you grieving? He has cried by the grave of a friend. Have friends let you down? He knows what it’s like to feel betrayed. Are you close to giving up? He knows exactly what you are going through.

God has a face and a mind and a body who understands us and someone we can relate to. John says; ‘the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the father full of grace and truth.’

We sometimes say to someone; “Go on then show us what you’re made of.” We are really asking that person to show us their glory; their true self. God’s glory is what God is like in all his brilliance. In Old Testament times no one could look on God’s glory and live. It would have been like standing to close to the sun. No one was allowed to see God face to face; it was forbidden. But all this changed, for Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to see his glory.

With Jesus we don’t just catch a fleeting glimpse of God, we can look into his face and see God in all his brilliance. Only it’s not the sort of brilliance we have in mind; no star dust. Jesus speaks about his hour of glory. He tells his disciples that there will come a crowning moment when his brilliance will be displayed for all to see.

When we think of someone’s hour of glory, we think of holding the World Cup aloft, or standing on the rostrum receiving a gold medal, or receiving an Oscar award or presented with a Nobel prize. That’s their 15 minutes of glory.

Jesus says that his hour of glory is the hour of his Death. It turns out that restoring each person to God took the death of Jesus on a cross. It is there that we see God in all his brilliance and glory. On a cross of shame.

This turns everything we have thought about God upside down. How can the crucifixion reveal the glory of God? It certainly reveals the brutality of the world. Only when you look to the cross of Jesus and see him crucified upon it and more to the point; why he was nailed to the cross will you ever see and understand your sin and his glory.

What is it about the cross of Christ which angers the world and stirs it to close its ears and persecute those who preach and live it out? It’s this; Christ died on the cross for you and me; sinners. Becoming a curse for us. The cross tells us then some very unsavoury truths about ourselves, namely we are sinners under the righteous curse of God’s law and we cannot save ourselves.

The Lamb of God bore our sin and curse precisely because we could gain release from them in no other way. If we could have been forgiven by our own good works, be being circumcised and keeping the law, we may be quite sure that there would have been no cross.

Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying. Nothing in all of history or in all of the world cuts us down to size like the cross. And we loathe the very thought of it.
All of us have inflated views of ourselves especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary.

It is there at the foot of the cross that we shrink to our true size. Let’s never forget. The word became flesh…… for us.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Lamentation” by Giotto, painted between 1304 to 1306.

Our Shared Work With Christ

The average Christian, reading his Bible in happy devotion, stumbles across this passage: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24).

The passage is particularly disturbing for a certain strain of Protestant thought that emphasizes Christ’s sufficiency for all things. Christ has accomplished all things necessary to our salvation and we are thus able to “rest” in His completed work. For many, this is at the heart of grace. God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. What remains is for us to trust that this is so. Christ declares, “It is finished.” There is nothing left for us but trust.

This sentiment recently came crashing into a discussion of the Russian novel, Laurus. I attended (and spoke) at the Eighth Day Symposium in Wichita, Kansas. The presenter, Jessica Hooten Wilson, had spoken on the Russian novel, Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, in which the lead character enters the long, arduous life of a holy fool following the death of a woman and her child, a result of his own inaction. Wilson made mention of a review by Alan Jacobs (Baylor University) that described its spirituality as “Hindu,” and castigated its approach to Christianity. He wrote: “…though I know that Eugene Vodolazkin is a Christian, I remain uncertain about just what vision of the Christian life is being held out to me in this book…. In Laurus…long, hard spiritual labor pays for sins, as it does for the world…”

Vodolazkin nowhere characterizes Laurus’ labors as a payment for sin. Indeed, the concept is foreign to Orthodox thought. It is an absence that is so profound that a Protestant professor of literature felt the need to supply it, and with it, distort a beautifully Orthodox novel. In the discussion at the conference, a Protestant participant agreed that the novel seemed strangely unable to “rest” in Christ. Inasmuch as I am often not in dialog with Protestant Christians, I was caught off-guard by these observations. I forgot how foreign all of this is. Happily, it is also foreign to the New Testament.

Whatever one might think of grace, the work of Christ on the Cross in no way removes the work of the Cross from the lives of believers. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and continue to say throughout our lives: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live” (Gal. 2:20). It is Christ who taught that we ourselves must take up the Cross and follow Him. There is no “resting” Christianity made available by a substitutionary work of Christ. The work of Christ is a matter of participation (koinonia) – we are baptized into it, live through its presence in us, and do not cease to share in that work, ever.

It is always difficult to listen to what is actually being said and not try to hear a conversation that is not taking place. Salvation, in Latin Christianity, was made captive, rather early on, to the language of “grace” and “works.” Within what would become a dominantly juridical framework, grace and works were easily externalized, raising questions about who was doing the “saving.”

When St. Paul says that he is filling up “that which is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, he is either subscribing to some form of Pelagianism, or he simply has no notion of a juridical salvation. No doubt, the latter is the actual case.

When he says that he is crucified with Christ, St. Paul means precisely what he is saying. Indeed, it is the deepest cry of his heart: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him – the power of his resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).

This has nothing of the language of earning, much less external grace and works. It is the language of the most intimate, mystical communion.

We know a little bit about this experience, for it is common in relationships marked by intense love. The coldness of a conversation regarding who did what, or what is owed to whom, has no place in such intimacy. Love speaks in terms of union. It wants to share in the deepest manner possible the life of the beloved.

There appeared a rift in Protestantism within its first two to three centuries. That rift, to a large extent, represented a deep dissatisfaction with a cold, sterile presentation of the life of grace. Early Protestants almost universally held to a doctrine of “cessationism,” teaching that miracles ended when the New Testament was completed. What remained were the rather mechanical/intellectual doctrines that assured of salvation. Dry as dust.

The reaction to this was the birth of Pietism, in a variety of forms and places. At its worst, Pietism’s emotionalism led to extremes of belief and practice. At its best, it produced holy lives and gave heart to what would have been little more than a dry death to Western Christianity. Inasmuch as Western Christianity survives our present difficulties, it will be the heart born in Pietism that saves it (or so I think).

The transformation of the Pietist conversion experience into the doctrine of being “born-again” has tended to confuse Pietism and classical Protestantism, framing the experience of the heart in the rigid language of doctrinal necessity. Like many aspects of Protestantism(s), fragmentation in doctrine and experience has been a continuing and dominant feature.

Classical Christianity, in its Orthodox form, is very rich in its vocabulary and stories of the human experience of God. It is always “ontological” in its approach to doctrine, meaning that doctrine is always about “something-that-is” and not about a theory, or a juridical arrangement. Because “something-that-is” is capable of being experienced, it is always seen as quite natural that the work of God has a describable, experiential component.

If I am being crucified with Christ, it is inherently the case that such a thing is experienced in some manner. In the case of a holy fool, it might look a lot like the Laurus character. He must be contrasted with the middle-class American who sings happy songs on Sunday, perhaps even moved to tears, satisfied and assured that Jesus has taken care of everything such that he can safely return to the banalities of his life. Isn’t Jesus wonderful!

The simple truth is that the Kingdom of God “suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12). The gospel engages the whole person and assumes that we will love God “with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” That such an engagement might be described by some as “works righteousness” is merely indicative of a bifurcated Christianity that has placed God in a second-storey doctrinal reality, while the secular party rages here below.

Thank God for the Lauruses sprinkled across the historical landscape. The unity of faith and experience exemplified in their sometimes stormy lives whispers hope that God dwells among us and loves us, willing Himself into the messiness of our crucified existence, ever-straining Himself into the depths of our being, while we strain to respond in kind, enduring “that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” – our own response to His love.

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 image shows, “Basil the Blessed, Praying,” by Sergey Kirillov, painted in 1994.