Posts Tagged religion

Markides: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Kyriacos C. Markides (born November 19, 1942) is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine.  He has written several books on Christian mysticism including Mountain of Silence, Gifts of the Desert, and Inner River.  The following excerpt is from the book Gifts of the Desert, and gives what I consider an enlightened interpretation of John 14:6b. The context of the excerpt below is a QA session following a lecture on Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

kyriacos_markides“Just as I was about to thank the participants for their attentiveness and end the workshop, a woman who had earlier identified herself as a “born again Christian” raised her hand with marked intensity.

‘Christ taught that only through him can one go to the Father. How should we understand this statement?’ Given my audience, it was the most challenging question I faced.

I had the feeling that she needed affirmation for her beliefs and consciously or unconsciously wished to prompt me into declaring that only Christians will inherit heaven. Feeling somewhat uneasy, I reflected for a few seconds. I knew that, whatever answer I could possibly come up with, someone might feel offended or excluded. ‘Furthermore,’ I added, ‘I am not a biblical scholar who can offer an authoritative exegesis of scripture. I am certainly not a theologian.’ Inwardly, I asked for guidance as I placed my left hand in my pocket and fiddled with a komboschini [a string of black knots made out of wool that the Athonite monks use for ceaseless prayer]. Father Maximos had given it to me after pulling it off his own hand. It offered me a sense of security at that moment.

‘Look,’ I replied finally. ‘There are two possible ways to answer your question. The first is to interpret that passage in the New Testament literally, the way many Christians today would interpret it. In this sense, nobody who is not a baptized Christian can be saved. Some denominations would even make the claim that only through their specific community can a human being find salvation. This is, let us say, an ‘exoteric’ belief shared widely among fundamentalist Christians. It is a belief, however, that divides people, raising serious questions about God’s fairness and love for all his creatures. The typical objection is this: Does it mean that the billions of people who are not born Christians and who may have never heard of Christ will be lost for eternity? From a more esoteric, ‘inner Christian’ perspective such a conclusion seems misguided, to put it mildly. It denies the possibility of salvation to the overwhelming majority of the human race. Surely this could not have been Christ’s intention when he made that statement.’

I was encouraged by the facial expressions of the participants and continued. ‘Why then don’t we make an attempt to interpret that statement in a more inclusive way? Why don’t we try to look at it in terms of its possible inner meaning? I believe the Gospel of John offers us guidelines to answer questions like yours. Christ, according to the Gospel, is ‘the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ [John 1:9]. Do you agree?’ After she nodded I continued. ‘Well, that says it all. Every human being has the Christ within his or her very nature. Furthermore, we are told that Christ is total and unconditional Love. Is it not, therefore, reasonable to conclude that whoever wishes to go to the Father, i.e., God, must attain the state of absolute and selfless love that Jesus embodied? If Christ is Love, then anyone who reaches the state of purification reaches the Father. No one can go to the Father, therefore, outside of total and selfless love. This is, I believe, the true spirit of the Christian message and this is what I understand the great saints of Christianity have taught either explicitly or implicitly.”

 

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 1

“after the fire a still small voice”.  ~ 1 Kings 19:12

1 Kings 19 talks about Elijah running from a very evil queen Jezebel. God wants to talk with Elijah and Elijah experiences a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, yet he does not hear the voice of God. He hears it in a “still small voice” or as the Greek Septuagint has it, “φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς”, “a sound minute and poor”.

We can only hear “a sound minute and poor” when we ourselves are quiet, still, and attentive. We need to be calm in spirit, ignoring the endless blather of our own mind, and open to the moment without expectation or judgment. That is contemplation. It is how Jesus spent most of his time “praying”. It is what the early church meant by prayer.

Western Latin Christianity (Roman Catholicism) completely lost their contemplative prayer tradition by the rational argumentation of the Reformation of the 16th century and the rational intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment of 17th century. Protestantism never had a contemplative prayer tradition.

The bad news is that we in the West have no idea how to pray as Jesus prayed. The good news is that the tradition of contemplative prayer is being re-discovered in the West and has always been available in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of “hesychasm” to anyone motivated to quiet themselves and seek it.

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 4

“Be still, and know that I am God”.  “Jesus said, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” ~ John 4:24, Psalm 46:10

In discussing Contemplative or Primitive Christian Prayer, I will frequently quote early Church Fathers, like Evagrius Ponticus (346 – 399).  Evagrius was one of the most important teachers of mysticism of the early Church.  He was a contemporary and friend of the famous Cappadocian Fathers (Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) who led the Church through the Christological controversies of the 4th century (AD 300’s).  St. Basil ordained Evagrius as reader and St. Gregory Nazianzen ordained him to the diaconate.  In about AD 383 he, like John Cassian, was drawn to the Egyptian Desert where he became a monk, and was a close associate of the greatest of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, especially Macarius of Egypt.  Evagrius was well trained in ancient philosophy and literature, was articulate and literate at a time when most of his contemplative fellow monks of the desert were illiterate.

Evagrius’s description of contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer makes it clear that he is talking about a foundational prayer life that is much different from what we contemporary Christians think of as prayer.  First of all, it is not verbal and it is not actively projecting wishes or messages of any kind.  In his work, “On Prayer”, Evagrius tells us that, “Prayer is the ascent of the spirit [nous*] to God”… “Prayer is a conversation of the spirit with God.”  Second, contemplative primitive prayer requires a quiet, still soul in order for our spirit to ascend and commune with God.  It means that all thoughts, whether bad thoughts (the “passions”) or good thoughts, must be stilled.  Evagrius tells us that, “You will not be able to pray purely if you are all involved with material affairs and agitated with unremitting concerns. For prayer is the rejection of conceptions…  Seek therefore the disposition that the spirit needs, in order to be able to reach out towards its Lord and to hold converse with him without any intermediary…  Undistracted prayer is the highest intellection of the spirit [nous]…  Try to make your intellect deaf and dumb during prayer; you will then be able to pray”.

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 8

“Always breathe Christ” ~ Anthony the Great, 4th century

In the ancient Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition of “hesychasm” (silence, stillness, quietude), invoking the name of Jesus Christ has been used as a means of focusing the mind on God and eliminating outside thoughts, images, and other distractions from pure presence.  Invoking the name of Jesus also acknowledges that God is personal; He only manifests as Persons in Trinity, in an endless “circle dance” (perichoresis) of co-inherent divine love (agape). This invocation of Christ has been combined with breathing as a “psycho-somatic” (involving both “psuche” (soul) and “soma” (body)) aid in centering the spirit (nous) in the heart for its ascent to God.

Athanasius of Alexandria (295 – 356), besides being the hero of the first Ecumenical Council of the Church at Nicaea in AD 325, also wrote “The Life of Anthony”, about the greatest and most celebrated of the first monks.  In it, Athanasius quotes Anthony (whom he personally knew) as follows:

“[Anthony] called his two companions… and said to them, ‘Always breathe Christ’.”

Pseudo-Macarius echoes the same idea in about AD 400 with this elegant sentiment from his “Coptic Cycle of Sayings”:

“The Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, is linked to the Word from all eternity.  Therefore when a person’s intellect and breathing utter the name of the Incarnate Word – Jesus – they are united with the Holy Spirit, and the person breathes and thinks in the Spirit.

The intellect [nous], strengthened by the invocation, finds its connection with the heart again, and this, or rather the presence in it, becomes conscious.  Intellect and heart together form that heart-spirit in which a person collects, opens, unifies, harmonizes, and enlarges himself infinitely.  It properly constitutes the ‘place of God’.”

Anthony and Macarius were joined in this same sentiment more than 200 years later by 7th century mystic master John Climacus.  John wrote the “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”; 30 short tracts, or steps, of spiritual instruction for his monks.  In Step 27 of “The Ladder” he wrote:

“Let your calling to mind of Jesus be continually combined with your breathing and you will know the meaning of silence.”

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Reclaiming our Prophetic Voice and Authority

“In the Biblical tradition, the power on the Right and the power on the Left are symbolized by the kings and the prophets, respectively.”  Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Fr. Rohr brings up a thought-provoking truth. The Jewish prophets were mainly engaged in acting as agents of God to communicate with his people. This communication came in the forms of prediction of future events, criticism and indictment of native and foreign domination systems, and energizing and encouraging the people to faith and hope.  The prophets didn’t just know about God, they knew God in a direct and experiential way. This gave them great authority, passion and confidence. They cared about what God cared about. In the words of theologian Marcus Borg, “the strongest passion of the God of the Bible is the transformation of the humanly-created world into a more just, compassionate, peaceful kind of world.”  The prophetic voice echoed that passion.

Because Christianity has been in league with the secular “kings” of this world (discussed yesterday in the post “Christendom: 1,700 years of sleeping with the enemy”), the institutional Christian Church silenced its prophets and lost its prophetic voice and authority early in its history.  In fact, so thorough was this purging, the ministries of Apostle and Prophet virtually disappeared from the institutional church (cf., Eph. 4:11).  All this in the face of the advice and direction of St. Paul to the individual members of the body of Christ to “strive for the greater gifts”; specifically, “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers”, in that order (cf., 1 Cor 12:27-31).  Oh well, “Christendom” did indeed require the institutional church to compromise some core values, didn’t it?

The point is, that when the institutional church suppressed and abandoned its prophetic tradition, the only prophetic voice left on the field was that of secular liberals.  The obvious problem with that situation was that these secular prophetic voices often had little or no grounding or authority past the limitations of their own human intellect and passion. That can be a very dangerous thing indeed, as history has amply demonstrated.

The fall of Christendom, starting after WW I in Europe and a little later (post-WW II) in the U.S., marks the breakdown of the unholy alliance between institutional church and State.  The universal Church (read: Ekklesia, Body of Christ) now has the opportunity, for the first time in 1,700 years, to reclaim its traditional Prophetic voice and authority. We have the clear advantage over secular prophets in that we know God experientially (some still do, praise God!) and thus can again speak with the authority, passion, and confidence of a loving God who calls us to restore ourselves and the world to union with him.

This is truly an exciting time for the Ekklesia, Body of Christ.  Just think, we might even grow some Apostles…

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Christendom: 1,700 years of “sleeping with the enemy”

I was recently reading a piece by Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, on history’s habit of fluctuating between extremes of the “Left” and the “Right”, between Liberalism and Conservatism. Rohr made the interesting observation that, “It is interesting that these two different powers took the words “Right” and “Left” from the Estates-General in France”. What he said next really caught my attention, “On the right sat the nobility and the clergy (what were the clergy doing over there?) and on the left sat the peasants and 90 percent of the population”.

It struck me that the image of the clergy sitting with the nobility is a good working definition of “Christendom”. It applies to Protestants as well as to Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox starting in 313 AD, when Roman Emperor Constantine I ended the persecution of Christians and made Christianity the preferred religion of the Empire. We just quietly celebrated the 1,700 year anniversary of that dubious milestone (The Edict of Milan) last week on June 26.

The institutional “church” is not preaching the fact that although the “Clergy” has been sleeping with enemy, the “Nobility”, for a solid 1,700 years, both Jesus and Paul have been sitting on the opposite side of the isle with “the peasants and 90 percent of the population” for that entire period.

I have often said that the demise of “Christendom” in the late 20th/early 21st century was a great opportunity for the universal “Church” (the Ekklesia) to become better operative and reflected in the local institutional church. But, it will seem an apparent short-term disaster for the contemporary institutional “church” as it exists today. The institutional “church” will have to “morph” itself (cf. Rom. 12:2) or fairly quickly fade into irrelevance. I believe that the institutional “church” needs to do corporately what it continually calls for the laity to do individually: confess and repent. Were that metanoia to happen, a whole lot of “tradition” would instantly disappear, “Poof”! On the positive side, the necessary metamorphosis would be faster and, in the long run, less painful.  Then perhaps the local church might do a better job of transforming the saints to union with God than it did under Christendom.

Unfortunately, I think that the institutional “church” is far too proud and far too arrogant to admit that it has been this wrong for this long.  I anticipate that it will continue to fume and bluster in denial of its own sin and carnality. At least for now.

Like any worldly institution, the institutional “church” will ultimately do whatever it has to do in order to survive, even if that means violating its own core values; like it did 1,700 years ago.

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Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

The beginning of the first century AD saw the rapid rise of the Roman Imperial Cult. This religious cult was based upon the proclaimed divinity of Augustus Caesar (c.62 BC – 14 AD / Reigned 31 BC – 14 AD) and subsequent Roman Emperors. This Imperial Cult was a unifying political and religious factor across the whole Roman Empire in the first century. The emergence of the Imperial Cult preceded, but also developed with, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The earliest written Christian records we have are the Letters of St. Paul from the mid-first century. A good summary of the theme of his gospel message is contained in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 1, Verses 3 &4: “…concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead…”.

In the opinion of British theologian N.T. Wright, “Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul “the gospel” is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord.”

Wright goes on to explain that Paul’s euangelion, his gospel (Good News) message, was every bit as much a confrontational and subversive political proclamation as it was a religious one: “Paul was announcing that Jesus was the true King of Israel and hence the true Lord of the world, at exactly the time in history, and over exactly the geographical spread, where the Roman emperor was being proclaimed, in what styled itself a “gospel”, in very similar terms.”

Later, Wright applies Paul’s gospel message to his [Paul’s] vision for the ekklesia, the church. His basis for this comes from Chapter 3 of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Wright tells us: “We may begin with 3.20.  “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await the Saviour, the Lord Jesus, the Messiah”. These are Caesar-titles. The whole verse says: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality.”

Wright goes on to discuss the implications of Paul’s vision of this empire of Jesus: “if Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology, in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises.”

Paul’s vision for this ekklesia, as subversive colonial outposts of the coming empire of Jesus, could not be realized after a series of events in the fourth century.  In AD 313 Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, a proclamation of religious tolerance that officially ended the persecution of Christians.  The Christian Church greatly increased in power and influence in the fourth century under Imperial patronage.  The Church quickly became fully integrated into the political and cultural fabric of the Roman Empire, culminating with The Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, issued on 27 Feb 380, by Roman Emperor Theodosius I.  This edict ordered all subjects of the Roman Empire to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The edict officially made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

And the Church has been “sleeping with the enemy”, the world’s domination systems and institutions, for the entire 1,700 years since.  This is Christendom.  This is not the vision of the ekklesia of the Apostle Paul.

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