humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God

My own partial transcription from portions of this excellent conversation between David Bentley and Tony Golsby-Smith about Gregory of Nyssa:

4:59

[Gregory of Nyssa] is arguably the first metaphysician who in any significant way explored the metaphysics of divine infinity. …Infinity was ascribed to God …very rarely in Platonic tradition. The invite was not taken to be a positive attribute for many schools of thought until fairly late in the development of Hellenistic philosophy. He had is own anthropology. He had is own approach to an understanding of the nature of the human being, the nature of creatures as thoroughly dynamic expressions of being in relation to a God who is infinite. I don’t think that anyone before Gregory was as successful as he at arguing that the very things that for a more standard metaphysics would be seen as separating humanity from the divine—that is the mutably, the changeableness of human nature—Gregory was able to treat as the very terms of union with God. That is he had a very specific theology of the way in which human beings are related to God in union with God that was his rather creative use of a verse from Paul [Ph. 3:13] of eternal dynamic ascent into the divine. That our union with God, our eternal union with God, would be one also of eternal novelty, of epectasis [ἐπεκτεινόμενος], of being stretched out into an ever greater embrace that, by virtue of the divine infinity, is inexhaustible and by virtue of the inexhaustibly changing nature of the creature is nonetheless something in which we can participate. …All of this, in its own way, is quite original.

19:45

All sorts of things are called gods. Saints are called gods. John of Damascus and the other church fathers often speak of saints as gods because they don’t mean God in the sense of God most high. They just mean a divinized creature.

23:35

What does it mean to say [with the Nicene Creed established by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians] that in Christ God has entered into immediate communion with humanity? What is humanity? How is it that God, by becoming one man, in another sense is present in all of humanity, pervades the entirety of human experience that is available to all of the spirit? This leads to Gregory of Nyssa coming up with all sorts of fascinating claims about what it is to be human, what it is to be truly human, how God created humanity form the vantage of eternity as apposed to the process of creation in time and how these two relate. Here he far surpassed his brother [Basil] and Gregory of Nazianzus in the range of speculative genius and also theological profundity. The picture of the human that emerges from it is one of a sort of radical coinherence, radical community, such that the human essence itself is one that is community before it is individuated in persons.

27:04

What he does with the Life of Moses is he turns this into a mystical treatise about he ascent of the soul into God’s infinity. And the other is his great commentary on the Song of Songs which …has all these odd premonitory hints of a kind of almost romantic vision of the soul as this infinite insatiable energy that is plunged by its error for the divine, striving—not tragically striving—but nonetheless moved by this insatiable hunger for the beauty of God into ever-deeper communion.

33:17

[Gregory of Nyssa] recognizes the animality, the physicality, the degree to which, especially for fallen humanity, [it is given] in preparation for the fall. He talks about preparing certain organs (among them, organs of procreation) to be appropriate to the life that we live in this mortal flesh now. …At the same time, he realizes that even in this condition—he’s always …recogniz[ing] this divine light, this divine music even in the human[‘s] most indigent and coarsely physical form.

35:37

In a sense, [Gregory of Nyssa] starts [the creation story] at the end. The creation of humanity starts—he does this wonderful thing where he takes the two different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and makes them, so to speak, two different creative horizons within God’s working—he beings with the human being as already glorified, already united to Christ, already in its totality, all human being together rejoicing in and divinized by the presence of God. From there—that’s the primordial creative act of God, the eternal already accomplished end—from there then unfolds, even from the conditions of sin, how does God create us in time—this being not just the end of the story, but its foundation, its beginning. Rather than starting from this sort of tragedy of a promising creature created in a limited landscape of possibilities, who makes a mess of things, condemns himself and his descendants, …that’s actually an interval in the story that is surpassed before the story even gets underway.

You are confronted first and foremost with this dizzying claim that humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God. That’s where the story begins.

39:51

I’m a great champion of the romantic movement—especially the English romantic—the great rebellion against the mechanization, and I have no problem with a full robust, red blooded, seemingly panentheistic [vision]. I think that this is another reason to read Gregory On the Making of Humanity and Basil in the Hexameron. …Now, there is a certain degree of the Platonic melancholy there, a certain distrust of matter. You just can’t get away from that in the fourth century, especially in a fallen world. …But they are not talking about a world in which dead matter is the fictile clay by which God creates a working order of mechanisms related to him only in terms of his power. It really is for [them] a vision of created as pervaded by the Spirit of God. It really is the πνεῦμα, the breath of God really does permeate, fill and enliven all things. Life is literally at once the eternal spirit of God but actually the breath of God in all things. It is perfectly healthy to see the romantic rebellion [as being] against the mechanized picture—either the dualistic or the materialist version—this picture of creation as nothing but a collection of organic machines and matter as something inherently dead which is brought to life simply as a mater of functional arrangement but that in itself [is dead]. For Gregory, everything is just the mirror of the divine nature. …In both Basil and Gregory, they both deny that there is even, in any meaningful, sense a material substrate. Their understanding of matter—I don’t know if you’d say that it’s Berkeleian, that’s a bit of an anachronism—but their understanding of matter or the material creation is that it exists as a coalescence of radiant forms [Greek phrase given here, 41:53], of pure spiritual forms. They don’t believe that there is any sort of inanimate, non-divine, non-illuminated, purely passive level of material existence. And this is something that [Gregory] shared with Basil.

42:15

The portion in this conversation above about the two nested horizons of God’s creative work provides some helpful language regarding the nature of the cosmos that we inhabit now (see three previous posts here, here and here for just a few other examples of material in my blog related to this). Gregory considers there to be a foundational work of creation outside of time (both the beginning and the end of this current world) in which there is a “humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning [that] was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God.” This fullness of humanity is Adam made in the perfect image of God’s eternal son. This undifferentiated humanity falls at the moment of its creation (as Maximus the confessor puts it in three places) and Jesus Christ is therefore the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8) and the second Adam to whom all of humanity must remain united in order for the image of God to be preserved. Within fallen time, this image of God is now being differentiated as a kind of secondary work of creation—God’s joining with us in sin and death to nonetheless participate fully with even the life of fallen creation and to accomplish the end of God’s primary creative work. Later in the conversation, David summarizes Gregory as saying that, from our current perspective, creation has not yet taken place. From God’s eternal perspective, it can be clearly inferred as well, it has already taken place.

This entire interview is well worth listening to, and I hope the entire thing is transcribed. Two more are planned focussing on other writings of Gregory. This first interview touches on many other topics such as: Who were all of the Cappadocian saints and what is the nature of the Christian orthodoxy that they were critical in helping to establish? Why did Gregory advocate for the release of all slaves when no other Christian thinker (or likely any human thinker ever) had done so before in this way? Was Gregory a widower and what did Gregory say about marriage and monastic life? How does Gregory compare to Coleridge?

God as Architect/Builder/Geometer/Craftsman, frontispiece of Bible Moralisee (c. 1220-1230, illumination on parchment).

Five-ish Angelic Falls and Three Human Falls

Two Orthodox priests, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young, have been podcasting together recently and shared about these five-ish angelic falls. They have also referenced three human falls which Fr. Stephen has blogged about previously here as well. These lists include some notes and clarifications later shared by Fr. Andrew in an outline group connected to the podcast group.

These five-ish angelic falls are wrapped up with the three human falls listed below but are articulated here from the angelic perspective:

  1. Succession myth / serpent (=devil) cast into Hades. Attempt to overthrow the Most High from His throne in heaven that parallels various pagan myths of younger gods destroying the former gods. This is represented in all pagan myths as a success, but it is a failure in Genesis.
    1. Initial fall in the heart or mind of a divine council member. This is not recounted in Genesis directly. Subsequent readings of Genesis tend to fill in the gap and place this succession myth before creation (as in Milton’s Paradis Lost). However, casting it before the creation of the world creates a basic logical problem. You can’t dethrone the Most High God in reality, but you can try to dethrone him in the hearts and minds of his creatures. This requires there to be other creatures. Therefore, the serpent (a member of the divine council) is depicted as having “overthrown God” within his own heart at beholding the creation of humans and then to have invited humans to do the same. This succession myth gets told in Isaiah 14. The dethroning happens in the minds of the fallen angels, which is how this is described by St. Gregory the Great.
    2. Casting out of the devil into the Underworld for tempting mankind: the serpent, a divine council member, overthrows God in the hearts of humanity by tempting them with a shortcut to maturity and is sent by God to preside over the land of dust (i.e. of death or Sheol). This is the first angelic fall directly depicted in Genesis (a failure in contrast to the triumph of pagan succession myths). [Fr. Andrew notes that “fall” from this point on is not a moral fall or betrayal. In that sense, these angels are already fallen before these events happen. Fall here focuses on “being cast down.”]
  2. Apkallu / Watchers / Nephilim-generation (the Watchers (the fathers) falling by generating nephilim). Angels tempt humans with technology for which they are not ready and then involve themselves in human procreation to produce a line of demigods (1/3 fallen angel) who start human royal dynasties. Paralleled in pagan myths such as the Sumeran Kings List and the story of the Apkallu or the story of the Seven Sages.
  3. Nephilim / Unclean Spirits / Mastema+crew (the nephilim (the sons) falling by being defeated by the Flood when most are cast into the Abyss). Many of these demigods are finished off by Joshua and David. Their spirits trouble the earth as unclean spirits.
  4. Accepting worship post-Babel. Fallen angels receive the worship offered to them at the Tower of Babel (gate of the gods) and become the 70 gods of the original divine council placed over the traditional 70 nations.
  5. Satan (=devil?) falling like lightning. When Christ says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” after his 70 disciples return from their commissions to declare the kingdom of God. This is also connected with Rev. 12:9. Some claim that Christ’s earthly ministry changed something for Satan. Are these two different figures who both fall, or is this one figure, one person, who falls two different times in two different ways? St. Andrew of Caesarea thinks it’s one figure who falls in two different ways.

Three human falls:

  1. Fall of Adam. A trespass but no mention of sin in Genesis (seeking a childish shortcut to maturity despite God’s warning). This trespass of Adam brings death. It is the first fall and the last enemy to be defeated by Christ.
  2. Fall of Cain. Considered by several patristic writers to be the first to sin with his murder of his brother.
  3. Fall of humanity at the tower of Babel. Coming under the dominion of the angelic powers overseeing the nations.
Rendering by Natalia Lvova of a traditional icon (Archangel Michael, the Commander of the Heavenly Forces).

a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

From chapter 9 of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]

a meditation on brokenness

This meditation below reminded me of much that I’ve considered recently. See my thoughts here for example. The reflections below were posted to “The Art of Transfiguration” Facebook page on May 2, 2015 by “Unworthy Seraphim” [Robert Hegwood] (with minor edits in punctuation, spacing, and capitalization):

It’s okay to hurt: a meditation on brokenness.

It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to feel broken, alone, empty, and depressed. Not that these are good things—certainly not. But are they are part of normal human experience in our abnormally broken world. Sometimes we feel that there is an unwritten rule in our Christian communities that we have to be happy all the time—that it is a sign of true faith or piety if our experience is that of joy and peace and nothing else.

Our ascetic tradition tells us something different. I heard an interview with a monk who stated that the spiritual life is probably at most 10% peace…the other 90% percent being struggle.

Today many of us have the tendency to beat ourselves up for being caught in the struggle. We condemn ourselves for our negative feelings as though we can just “feel good” all the time. We have inherited logismoi (thoughts) from our culture that tells us we are insufficient or abnormal when we experience pain, hurt, and sadness.

Christ calls us to a more radical freedom. Our Divine Physician does not deal with illusions and non-realities. Brokenness is often the exact place where Christ wants to meet us [because it is where we actually are]. Many times we read stories of great monastic elders who found grace through intense struggle with demons. I’ve read on more than one occasion of a monk who [was] standing up and throwing punches at the demons for continually interrupting his prayer! Well perhaps our struggle is not quite that intense. But we’ve probably all had moments of wanting to throw a punch at our short tempter, our chronic lust, our tenacious depression…

The point is that struggle is normal.

During this season of Christ’s Resurrection, we constantly sing “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death.” How was this great victory achieved? By death. Sit for a moment with the mystery…with the paradox. Victory in death? Indeed.

From the moment of His birth, Christ is entering deeper and deeper into the brokenness of the human condition: healing the sick, advocating for the poor, calling us out on the secret sins of the heart. In Gethsemane, Christ even enters into the fear of death, so that we might be freed from it—according to St Maximus the Confessor. And finally Christ confronts death, the climax of our broken state. And by entering into death, He fills it with Himself, the Divine Presence. He fills darkness with light because He is the Light. He fills death with life because He is Life. Christ takes alienation from God and fills it with Love unshakable.

Life is very hard. We experience loss in the death of loved ones, ruptured friendships, and heartbreak. We are disappointed with our relationships, our church, our country, and especially ourselves at times. Maybe we react with addiction, or anger, with blaming or jealousy…maybe we just shut down and find ways to hide our hearts from a world too cruel to cope with.

Christ never says these things don’t happen. He never promises a life without struggle. What He does invite us into is a relationship of trusting His care for us. Of entering into His great victory. Being broken is part of the journey and part of the struggle. One day at a time, we work to bring our brokenness to Christ. It can be a place of meeting with Him. No place is beyond His touch. Know that Christ sees you and loves you and is near to your pain. It’s okay to hurt, it’s okay to feel broken. Christ works with just such things. They are, in fact, great tools for learning holiness, love, and compassion. In all places, times and circumstances, remember God Who is indeed very near to you.

Keep heart.

—Unworthy Seraphim

Orthodox Positions on Sin within the Life of Mary the Mother of God

This is a topic that I’ve read about over several years now (primarily online, not having come across it much within books), and I have wanted to collect together a few comments from various online sources into one place for myself as a simple reference in conversations (particularly when I am asked about this topic from time to time). As these passages indicate, Orthodox theology leaves a few options open on this topic while also differing from Roman Catholic and Protestant theology on this issue in a few straightforward ways.

Father Thomas Hopko in this podcast on The Dormition of the Theotokos (August 10, 2010):

In other words, as Father Alexander Schmemann used to say, “Mary is not the great exception.” You know, exceptionally conceived, exceptionally ending her human life, bypassing original sin, bypassing death. No, no, that is not the teaching at all. It’s just the opposite. She’s the great example. She exemplifies and patterns the Christian life.

Father Thomas Hopko in this podcast on Lent (April 9, 2013):

And some of their Western Latin teachers don’t say clearly whether or not she really died. And there were some that held that she really died, and there were others who said no. If there was this Immaculate Conception where the ancestral sin and stain was washed away, some people claim that she would not have died.

Now, our Eastern Orthodox and ancient Church says this: No matter how holy you are in this world, you’re going to die. Even if it could be by God’s grace and faith that you never sinned at all, you’re still a mortal, and you’re going to die. We’re all caught in this together, and the whole human race has to be raised and glorified. It can’t be done individually one by one.

It’s so wonderful! First you’re looking at this icon surrounded by flowers, with the Mother of God in it, who’s virtually sinless. I mean, many people even think she was without any, even the smallest sin, although most Church Fathers think she may have had thoughts coming from humanity, but she certainly never broke her communion with God, the Theotokos; she never committed any sin unto death. She was constantly graced by God and prepared to be Christ’s mother. We celebrate her in this grand Akathistos hymn. And then in the very same frame—we have the repentant and saved and deified and radiant Mary of Egypt, who herself becomes full of grace, just like Mary the Theotokos. But, boy, oh boy, if there was ever an opposite to Mary the Mother of God, it was Mary of Egypt!

On March 16, 2005 at 1:12 p.m., Father Thomas Dowd responded to this  post of Patriach Bartholomew on the ‘Immaculate Conception’ from March 8, 2005:

I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko say that the jury was out in the Orthodox church regarding the sinlessness of Mary, but that most authorities would acknowledge that Mary never committed any sins, mortal or venial. Perhaps I am asking a question that cannot be answered in the Orthodox Church at present.

On October 8, 2017 at 6:24 a.m., Fr. Stephen Freeman commented in response to his own blog Why the Orthodox Honor Mary from August 1, 2016:

Randall,

The hymns of the Church clearly articulate that Mary did not sin. It is worth noting that there are some who hold this to be true of John the Baptist as well. First, you have to step outside of the “Western” concept of sin, its origin and meaning. First, both Mary and John died – they were mortal. For the Orthodox, sin is death. It is not so much a moral category. Our behaviors that are termed “sins” are the consequence of our mortality, a bad response to corruption and death. But we do not die because we “sin.” We sin because we are dying. Christ willingly submitted Himself to the consequence of humanity’s mortality (“He became sin” in the words of St. Paul, 2 Cor. 5). But there was no “sin” in Christ, no moral failing – only righteousness.

That someone might live in constant union with God in this life is amazing to the Orthodox, but not inconceivable.

Having said all that, it is correct that there are a variety of opinions on the matter of specific moral choices (sins) on the part of the Mother of God. The variety of opinions is possible because there is nothing that hangs on it, no particular dogmatic understanding is affected one way of another. A way to say this is that the Orthodox do not think that Mary “had to be” free from sin (unlike the RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, rooted in a false notion of Original Sin – at least that’s what I’ve been given to understand). The larger part of the Orthodox tradition simply believes that Mary was free from sin, as a matter of fact (even if it’s a pious fact).

The understanding is rooted in expressions within some of the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Church that always speaks of her as “most pure, most holy.” It holds that in the Annunciation, the Incarnation of Christ is much, much more than a mere borrowing of flesh and inhabiting of her womb. It is a personal union with God, in the same sense that we long for such union. In that moment, she becomes Theotokos – not just “tokos.” It is for this reason that the statement “A sword will pierce your own soul also,” is understood to be ontologically true, and not a mere statement about the grief of a mother.

Mary is in no way “exempted” from venial sins – but she does not break her union with God or with her son – that is – she does not consent to them. She has consented to God alone. Met. Maximos cites Chrysostom’s opinion that Mary was guilty of vanity at the wedding in Cana. I think Chrysostom was wrong and guilty of bad exegesis, failing to understand the mystery within that text. The fathers are not infallible and must not be used as such. It simply says that great preachers get carried away sometimes. Chrysostom, for what it’s worth, is not a dogmatic theologian. He was a great preacher. His work was never part of the dogmatic tradition surrounding the councils. Indeed, I would say of Chrysostom that he is among the most “human” of fathers, clearly showing his own brokenness. He gets himself in trouble with certain excessive actions and statements. He is faithful and he is a giant. But he’s not a great source of theological understanding, except when he is. 🙂

But – don’t trouble yourself in the matter. It is not a dogmatic concern. The truth of it is something that can be known, I think, on the level of the heart and long experience with prayer and the communion of the saints. But it is not a “theologumenon” to be figured out and believed one way or the other. Just let it sit there.

I give you your faults

“You will need help,” she told them, “but all I am allowed to give you is a little talisman. …Meg, I give you your faults.”

“My faults!” Meg cried.

“Your faults.”

“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”

“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy….”

Madeleine L’Engle from A Wrinkle in Time.

honor all matter

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.

From St. John of Damascus (7th century, source unknown)

existence is the essential thing and the holy thing

Now here is the point I wish to make, because this is the thought that came to me as I was putting all this before the Lord. Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing.

If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. I’m tired—that may be some part of the problem. Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness. If young Boughton is my son, then by the same reasoning that child of his was also my daughter, and it was just terrible what happened to her, and that’s a fact. As I am a Christian man I could never say otherwise.

Marilynne Robinson in Gilead.

the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him

No one can live without sin, few know how to repent in such a way that their sins are washed as white as fleece, but there is one thing which we all can do; when we can neither avoid sin, nor repent truly, we can then bear the burden of sin, bear it patiently, bear it with pain, bear it without doing anything to avoid the pain and the agony of it, bear it as one would bear a cross; not Christ’s cross, not the cross of true discipleship, but the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him. Didn’t the thief say to his companion who was blaspheming the Lord: We are enduring because we have committed crimes; He endures sinlessly… And it is to him, because he had accepted the punishment, the pain, the agony, the consequences indeed of evil he had committed, of being the man he was, that Christ said, ‘Thou shalt be with Me today in Paradise…’

Words from a Russian staretz, one of the last elders of Optina (shared on a blog by Fr. Stephen Freeman).

a good notion of the current market value

Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically forever, unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can’t make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armour.

From chapter one of The Hobbit by Tolkien. (I’m reminded that, when fighting sin, being “weak on dragons” is a real set back.)